Let’s Build a Better RPG

So, I’ve ragged on Console RPGs a lot in my life; they represent to me a great deal of unfulfilled potential. But it’s one thing to bitch about how much you dislike something, and another thing entirely to try and fix it.

So! Right here, on the Art of Game, we’re going to build a better cRPG. Now I say this with the hopes of audience participation; if you disagree with what I have to say, or have a suggestion, question, or comment along the way, speak up!

The post prior to this one is a link to The Linear RPG, which is a very simplified CRPG — it’s a good example of something to analyze the genre in quick. I recommend taking a look, before we get in to the deep stuff.
Today, we’re going to talk about the overview of this project (Which I’ll tentatively call the Better Build RPG Project, or BBR Project). In foremost: the goals of the project, what works (and why), what fails (and why), what makes an ‘rpg’ specifically (and thus, what is necessary for this RPG), what we want in this RPG, and what we want to avoid in this RPG.

BBR Project Goals
What do we want to produce with this project? Well, possibly an actual, playable computer game, either as a downloadable or a flash game — that’d be great, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves. To do all that requires script writing, art assets, music and sound effects and programming to run it all — ultimately a lot of work. So let’s save that for the second project; first, we want to make a design document.

What’s a design document?
Surprisingly, a lot of people don’t know. I actually didn’t know the term until I got my first design job. The concept is clear; it’s a paper which outlines the specifics of your design. It’s not unlike a screenplay for a movie, or a blueprint for a building, but a design document is used for multimedia and interactive media. There are a number of formats available; there’s no standard I’m aware of. When it comes to games though, they always include: Story Outline, Characters, Gameplay Overview, Controls, Game Mechanics, and Samples of Play. Ultimately; a good game design document can be given to any development team, and they’ll be able to produce more or less the same game every time, like a film crew with a screenplay, or a construction crew with blueprints.

This document is vital to making a good game. They usually undergo many revisions while the game is being constructed, either through additions, clarifications, or second-thought changes, but it’s entirely possible to write and revise these documents properly before they are built — it’s just that multimedia teams usually don’t work that way.

Once we have a design document, we can see about having the game made.

Things that have Worked (And Why)
So, a good place to start is with things that have worked. It doesn’t matter if the game they’re from isn’t perfect — we just want to determine the best traits of the most enjoyable games. So I’ll start off by listing the RPGs I liked and the traits I liked about them.

Earthbound

  • Featured a unique setting (present day, psychic powers)
  • It’s primarily storytelling genre was comedy — it was a silly game
  • Had a limited inventory (No carrying unlimited supplies of healing items)
  • Had a unique look for combat
  • Had some very interesting mechanics, like the Franklin Badge (reflected lightning) and Teddy Bears (absorbed hits for the party)
  • Interesting status effects

Chrono Trigger

  • Again; Featured a unique setting (time travel)
  • Included a number of cool optional elements (interesting side dungeons, hidden character, multiple endings)
  • A flexible party where member choices meant something (via double and triple techs)
  • Attacks that take position in to effect

Mario RPG (Series)

  • Colorful and humorous
  • Reflex based combat system
  • Super simple stats
  • Super simple items

Final Fantasy Tactics

  • Grid based combat; position counts
  • Flexible characters; job system
  • A variety of viable tactics

Disgaea

  • Again; Grid combat, flexible characters and tactics
  • Randomly generated areas (item worlds)
  • Alternative methods for improving equipment (item bosses)
  • Multiple, optional side elements for additional advancement (item worlds, Dark assembly)

Dungeon Crawl (And other roguelikes)

  • Randomly generated world and items
  • Single, large major locale
  • Downplayed importance of particular items (most items and equipment are not uniquely important)
  • Many character options have distinct differences in play style (race, class and gods, for example)
  • Game over on death; saves can only be restored once
  • More resolution to combat than just killing your opponent; running away is not a permanent solution
  • Game demands experimentation from the player (identifying items, encountering monsters)

Fallout (series)

  • Awesome unique setting
  • Action point based combat system
  • Multiple avenues of resolution for most conflicts
  • Targeting
  • Critical successes and failure
  • Hex based combat
  • Many recruitable characters, but none are required
  • A real attempt at making player decision matter, if only on the small scale
  • Open, explorable world
  • Simple armor and weapons
  • Large variety of skills
  • Player controlled unique traits (mutations and perks)
  • Environment that feels a lot like a real place (Fallout 3)
  • Item decay (Fallout 3)
  • Player managed repair (Fallout 3; though it did leave a lot to be desired)
  • Crafting system (Fallout 3; Again, left somethings to be desired)

Planescape Torment

  • Uniquely dealt with the idea of dying (Unkillable main character)
  • Included a few interesting NPC-NPC interactions (Character in the party would talk)
  • Several NPCs, few of whom were necessary, some who excluded others
  • Many side plots which had a greater impact on your character
  • Strong voice acting (that’s cosmetic, though)
  • Plot advancement that often allowed for the circumvention of combat, at least to a certain extent

Things that didn’t Work
Final Fantasy (Various)

  • Increasingly generic plots
  • Ridiculous number inflation (Game stats, damage numbers, etc, are needlessly big)
  • Overly simple, non representative combat
  • Effectively infinite inventory space, no explanation
  • Inconsistent damage effects; guns early on are trivial, a single knife wound later is lethal
  • Story/mechanics disconnect; wounds of every kind can be recovered, except the cinematic ones
  • Generally uninteresting locales; usually pretty, but shallow
  • Game structure that promotes grinding and power leveling
  • Invisible random encounters
  • Magic is inconsistent, makes no sense, and is fairly imbalanced

Dark Cloud

  • Exceptionally annoying weapon decay
  • Bizarre, bland setting
  • Terrible, superfluous city building game mode (Georama mode)
  • Unintuitive advancement (weapon upgrades)
  • Very uninteresting random dungeons

Silver

  • Completely Unmemorable (No really. I’ve played this game through twice, and almost a third time, because I have a copy sitting around and I repeatedly wonder why I’ve never played it — I just keep forgetting that I have)
  • Boring, awkward real-time combat
  • Horrible advancement systems
  • Uninteresting, uninspired magic
  • Incongruities between mechanics and graphics, making gameplay sometimes difficulty
  • Unnecessary enemy volume (sloggy)
  • A slightly original, but terrible, plot

Mr. Robot

  • Unnecessarily obfuscated statistics and terminology (Giving the game it’s computer vibe)
  • Unclear menus
  • Fixed camera (sometimes hides notable obstacles and hazards)
  • Slow gameplay
  • Easy to become stuck, as recovery isn’t straight forward or accessible

And Critiques from the ‘Better’ Game

  • Earthbound — uninspired combat system; no variety in strategies between games
  • Earthbound — several key items are only obtained by chance and cannot be guaranteed (Sword of Kinds, Gutsy Bat, etc)
  • Chrono Trigger — Inconsistent past to future effects; destroys feeling of control over game events
  • Chrono Trigger — Interesting techs are quickly superseded by more powerful boring techs
  • Chrono Trigger — World is beautiful, but inexplicably tiny (Total population of… a few hundred, maybe?)
  • Mario RPG — Advancement is somewhat shallow
  • Mario RPG — Early series reflex combat challenges are shallow (later games in the series fix this)
  • FF Tactics — Has a notable number of Final Fantasy’s problems in general, regarding flavor
  • FF Tactics — While maps have elevation, they lack any number of potentially strategic landmarks
  • Disgaea — Encourages power leveling
  • Disgaea — Random maps are often bland and disjointed (even major areas are often fairly uninteresting)
  • Disgaea — Systems added to complicate combat are sometimes completely arbitrary (Geo Tiles, throwing)
  • Roguelikes — Often punishing difficulty making the games inaccessible
  • Roguelikes — Unnecessarily complicated input methods
  • Roguelikes — Often very uninteresting levels (Some more recent Roguelikes escape this problem)
  • Roguelikes — Little to no actual story
  • Fallout Series — Weightless Ammo, exceptionally high character carry capacity
  • Fallout Series — Dumb NPC Allies (who often move in to your line of fire)
  • Fallout Series — Very little event follow-through — few things change even after major events
  • Planescape — Easy to become lost between plot points in a beautiful setting that is not clearly mapped


What Makes an RPG
So, we have a survey here of things I think are good and bad in RPGs — we’ll get to summarizing them shortly — but what about the essentials? Platform Games need platforms, and typically jumping. First Person Shooters need to be in first person and should have guns, or gun equivalents. What does an RPG need though?

CRPGs are ubiquitous with: Levels and Experience, ‘Dungeons’, ‘strong’ storytelling, fictional settings, inventory, equipment, measurable character statistics, character parties, abundant NPC characters and NPC character areas, turn based battles, and random encounters.

From those, it’s hard to determine what’s essential. I’d contend that we need Levels, and probably experience. We need to tell a story, but we can do better than what CRPGs usually do. Dungeons and NPC character areas are sort of innate, but I don’t think they need to be completely distinct; we could blur them a little. NPCs we need too, but like the story, we can do them better than RPGs usually do. With the exception of Random encounters, the rest are most or less benign elements.

However: We can improve most of these elements by ditching old ideas. NPCs and a party, we can revamp. Turn based battles we can rethink. Inventory and equipment we can rework. We can make a better setting and a better story.
What do we want?
So, what elements should be used? What would make for a good CRPG?

  • A highly unique setting — Earthbound and Fallout more or less built themselves on not being high fantasy. These days, however, we need to do a little better than ‘kinda sci-fi’. Most genres under the sun have been done, so we’ll need to craft a setting carefully.
  • Characters with actual motive and choices — We need to craft a story that is neither impossible to follow, or numbingly dumb. But moreover, the player needs to be able to impact it. They need to care about their character, and their character needs to be more than use a pre-scripted doll.
  • Limited Inventory — items get ignored plenty easily most of the time. Player’s need to weigh the usefulness of taking things with them if we want them to matter. However, we don’t want this to be overly complicated or stressful.
  • Involved Combat — We can’t get away without conflict, but we can get away with making it meaningful. Players need to be able to move around; position needs to count. Players need to have more to do than FIGHT/MAGIC/ITEM/RUN.
  • Non-Lethal Win/Lose — If you get in a real fight, usually it doesn’t end with one side of the conflict totally dead. Why should games be different? We need to let players have this option — make it preferable, perhaps.
  • Involved Non-Combat — Players need more to do than just fighting things. We need to give them other options and tasks that they can use beyond combat that are AS developed as combat.
  • Simple numbers — Players need to be able to easily understand whatever numbers we present them; they need to be contextual too. Fallout’s S.P.E.C.I.A.L. made it easy to quickly survey a character. The low numbers in the Mario RPG series made it clear when things were effective or ineffective.
  • Explorable World — Most RPGs trap the player in a line. While we don’t need a giant sprawling world, we DO need a world that doesn’t feel like a movie-set. Players should feel free to explore it, and we shouldn’t penalize them for doing so, or for failing to do so.
  • Unimportant Items — Most stuff is just stuff. If we offer the player varied equipment, the decision on what to take should be deeper than ‘what can I afford’. Player’s shouldn’t just simply find ‘better armor’ in the next area — the idea of equipment being ‘better’ should be entirely relative.
  • Living World — Things should occur without the player’s intervention. They shouldn’t be the center of the universe.

I think this makes for a good start.
What do we want to avoid?

  • Probably the first thing is a lame story and plot — this can be tricky though. Silver and Dark Cloud both tried to be original and failed to be interesting. What can we do to avoid this problem? Editing and planning, primarily. It also helps to have a professional writer either create the story or  at least consult on it.
  • Meaningless Combat — Random encounters are a weird beast; making the player fight through swarms of meaningless enemies. Eliminating random encounters doesn’t solve the problem; combat needs to be fun, regardless of the encounter. This should also mean multiple effective strategies are always viable, though they don’t always have to be evenly effective.
  • Meaningless Activity — Like combat, we need to make sure that players aren’t boring themselves on meaningless tasks. No stupid fetch quests, no stupid puzzles. We should offer them multiple solutions to problems if it is reasonable to do so. This also includes overly repetitive tasks.
  • Reality Defying Mechanics — We can suspend disbelief, but we should avoid mechanics that don’t make any sense; preferably it should make sense in our world, but DEFINITELY it should make sense in the game. Unlimited inventory is only the first mechanic like this we should avoid. Things like phoenix downs are another good one to avoid. Using a giant slot machine to perform an attack is definitely out.
  • Eliminating Realistic Options — Much like including Reality Defying Mechanics, failing to include options that make sense inside the game’s context can pretty quickly destroy suspension of disbelief.
  • Action Elements — While there are a lot of Action RPGs out there, I feel that we should avoid it for this project so that it won’t be considered an action game with RPG elements.
  • Confusion — We don’t want to use brand new terminology; we want everything to be clear and understood.
  • Too Much Information — Likewise, we don’t want to bog the player down with too much information.

So; what do you all think? Is this a fair analysis? Do you think I’m missing any required elements for a CRPG? Or are the ‘Wants’ and ‘Avoids’ off base, or do you have something to add? Then comment below!

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2 Responses to “Let’s Build a Better RPG”

  1. D. I. Harris Says:

    A couple of things:

    What the early Final Fantasies did right:

    The early final fantasies emphasised character in a way that the later ones completely abandoned. Let’s take FFVI as an example: each character has a specific personality that is reflected in his or her combat style. That doesn’t happen in later Final Fantasy games: the characters become interchangable in combat. In VI, you had to frequently divide your characters into teams, think about how they work together, about what combinations will result in success, and what will fail. Those were my favourite parts of VI: the times when I had to build 3-4 different parties, using abilities that work together.

    VI was also the game that had the best story, in part because so little time was spent telling the story in regular terms. In VI, the world is destroyed, and you experience all these little stories that fill in your sense of the world, of what’s going on. The story is told through little bits and pieces, making it an organic whole, rather than one continued narrative. The story is held together by an extremely powerful antagonist, rather than a narrative thread. Finally, the antagonist relates to the experience of playing the game: the antagonist gains in strength the same way you do, enjoys the same things you do, comments on the graphics: he is defined by his sense of fun. Just like the player, he’s doing this for fun.

    But now I’m losing the thread of my argument.

    Also, I disagree with your interpretation of the fight/magic/item/run problem. I agree, it’s a problem, but the problem is not with number of options: the problem is that the options are meaningless. For the mage, in any difficult situation, the answer is always magic. For the fighter, the answer is always fight. You can get through combats simply by hitting the “confirm” button because of this. That is, the opportunity cost of each option is practically zero: for effective strategizing, there must be a significant opportunity cost to each choice. In most RPGs, there is not.

    The problem is not that Fight/Magic/Item/Run does not give enough options, because it does. Very complex games have been built around the rock-paper-scissors dynamic, where each choice carries a significant weakness, and the strategy is to use your strength while protecting your weakness. What’s the weakness of choosing “fight” with a fighter?

    Adding more options will not solve this problem.

  2. D. I. Harris Says:

    Also, Frogsquash was one of the most awesome techs in Chrono Trigger, and it came last.

    I think the problem is with magic: most ideas for magic are very generic because magic is very abstract, and not tied to the world. Luminere, heal, flare… these are all very generic things that any mage would do. Slurp? That’s something only Frog could do–and because of that, it’s creative, fun, and unique.

    Magic must be made concrete through something in order to be creative.

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