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Monday, February 08, 2010

The Problem(s) With RPGs

I got Game Maker in May 2005, and shortly thereafter, one of the first games I started working on was a role playing game, better known as an RPG. In fact, you can still see the original posting (though the download links have long since been removed). I spent over a year working on it and the game was never finished.

Yoshi and Dave together?! regular overworld


Now, compare that story to this one: I started Dubloon in May of 2009. Less than a month later, I'd already made more progress with Dubloon than I had in the entire development time of my first RPG. It also looked better, played better, worked better, and was easier to work with.

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Basically what I'm getting at here is that making an RPG is hard and not to be attempted by the inexperienced. I'm not saying it's impossible, but in terms of game making RPGs pose way more obstacles than any other genre of video game I can think of. So as part cautionary tale, and part "developer's journal" sort of thing, I'm going to talk about what I've learned about making RPGs and some of the pitfalls in designing them.

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One of the first thing people always talk about when it comes to this topic is the amount of technical expertise you have to come in with. This one should seem obvious. When you talk about the inner workings of a role playing games, you're looking at a lot of data that has to be organized, computed, crunched, what have you--constantly. You'll be handling inventories, character statistics, battle calculations, and so on. It can be hard to keep track of, especially when your development team consists of one person. You need to be adept with things like arrays and data structures and all that fun stuff--this should go without saying, but I programmed my first RPGs without these, and it sucked. Hard. Projects like RPGs don't exactly go by quickly, either. The code you write needs to be functional, annotated, and organized enough so that you can come back to it even a year later and still know exactly what it does. When new game makers start off by saying they want to make their dream RPG, as I did, this is usually the reason why they're told that they can't.

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RPGs aren't just difficult to build technically, but also--if I may--artistically. Unlike games in other genres, the expectation in a legitimate, fully realized RPG is a pretty high playtime. Most independent games can be beaten within an hour, easily, if not 15 minutes or so. To account for that huge difference in playtime, you need to come into RPGs with a truckload of gameplay mechanics and ideas to keep things varied and interesting. The problem I find with a lot of RPGs is that they become too comfortable falling into boring patterns... explore dungeon, griiiiiind, fight boss, move to next dungeon. Nowadays games move very quickly, and game designers have a lot more responsibility to battle to keep the player's attention. Don't let your game grow stale! "RPG" should not be synonymous with "boring," and if you actually put some thought into how your game is paced and feels it's still entirely possible to put together a very fun, engaging RPG.

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That said, it's become clear that RPGs nowadays aren't as well received by players as they once were. I was rather painfully introduced to this fact when Dubloon went up on IndieGames back in July 2009. People had posted pretty slanderous comments--"just another RPG"--without even having played the game. RPGs just aren't as appreciated as much these days, and you can see that trend in places like Indiegames' "Best of Features" end of year lists. Most genres got 15-20 games listed under them; RPGs were lumped in with 2 similar genres and together all 3 were able to produce 10 "best" titles for the year. When it comes to the independent games "market," it takes a lot of promise to convince people these days that your RPG is worth their time. Maybe I'm reacting too strongly to a minority group of haters, but it's never a bad idea to try and innovate. Be mindful of your game's image: how will players see it? There's a reason why lists like these exist and it's important that you familiarize yourself with what the genre cliches are... so you can break them.

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Are RPGs dead? I don't think so, not at all. They're very good at giving players a very particular sort of experience, one where they really feel character growth and adventure in a way no other genre can quite deliver. What's important when making a good RPG is knowing what they're good at and what they're not so good at, and using those qualities to your advantage. When I started my first RPG, I started it just because I wanted to make an RPG, and I don't think that's the right way to approach these things. An RPG simply isn't interesting just by virtue of being an RPG. When I started Dubloon, it was because I wanted to make a game about pirates, and I decided that the best game to deliver that sort of pirate "experience" would be an RPG. Let the genre be your tool... don't be a tool of the genre.

25 comments:

Lil' Vypa said...

Well put Banov.
You made good point (that and the pictures make your game look like it's bout to be sold @ GameStop) but I digress.
Nice entry.

~Vypa

ninjutsu63 said...

I definitely understand what you mean. I've started a number of RPG projects over the years. Each time I learned a lot, and the next one was always light years better, at least mechanically.

Andrew said...

You got indie games'd: http://3.ly/FLgD

Maybe I should also pull that RPG I was probably working on out of the many folders it's probably buried in.

Sebastian said...

Ace article, Banov. This rings very true with my experience of trying to make even simple RPGs when I first got into simple game making programs years ago.

I think it also explains why you run into a lot of half-finished or incomplete RPGs.


~Malefact

Greg said...

The issue at hand is really that 'RPGs' are a very stagnant genre. They're this weird mishmash of warped strategy game elements that have fermented in to something that was once unique and become a gaming meme.

Modern RPGs that follow in the traditional model set out by Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest do two basic things: they want to tell a (very linear) story, and they want to give the player a variant on a very specific turn-based battle system that generally contains a number of fatal flaws that make it somewhat nonsensical.

Now, I won't disagree with much of what you say here: making a traditional RPG does require some significant technical skill (and planning) as it tends to be a very structured experience , and for it to appeal to the genre lovers it needs a certain amount of written and visual charm.

However, I believe the reason the genre gets no love these days is because it has long since ceased making sense. The idea of leveling up makes sense in theory, but in execution it's rarely sensible. Why does a Plague Rat in area four do more damage than the City Guard in Area One?

This can be applied to much of the genre's major mechanics. Like weapons and armor, for example. In reality, there's trade offs for using any given arms which has little to do with quality -- surviving in combat has far less to do with what you're armed with and more how experienced you are, but in RPGs they're given about equal weight.

Combat itself makes very little sense too, see at any point. What does HP even mean in the scope of things? Why are we fighting large sums of animals, monsters and villains? Why does eating food heal me (And why is there no real limit to what I can carry)? Why can't my party split up and spread out?

If you want to make a spectacular RPG, I'd suggest you start from scratch. Examine all the mechanics you assume you need, and think about how much you REALLY need them. If they aren't necessary, or (worse!) don't make SENSE, throw them out! The end product may not feel like a traditional RPG anymore, but I bet it'll be a much better game.

Banov said...

Thanks for the comments, guys! I wasn't actually expecting this to get wide recognition or anything, so I didn't spend a lot of time making it organized/edited/pretty. And now it's my most visited blog post ever, I think. Whoops.

@Greg I think you're very right and I do agree. I think that works in with stuff I said about breaking genre cliches... and how you should be aware what the cliches/expectations are so you can break them. But it's an excellent idea, something I've consciously done too.

Though I think it also is worth saying that not all RPG conventions are necessarily bad. I don't think you should actively think of what the cliches are and always do the opposite (which you nearly seem to suggest)--nor should you blindly follow the cliches just because they're there. It's a matter of examining everything and being able to rationalize why you're doing them the way you are.

I don't like the term "make sense." Most games aren't going to "make sense." The purpose isn't to create realism, it's to create a game, and that means constructing a worthwhile play experience. So even though being able to carry 100 bottles of rum doesn't "make sense," it lets the player hoard helpful items so they have something to do with their extra cash and prepare for big fights. Meat healing your wounds doesn't "make sense," but it's a helluva lot better than making the player do some stupid realistic first-aid gameplay to heal themselves in the middle of a fight, and usually the item in question will fit the game's theme. Et cetera.

Greg said...

@Banov:
You definitely know what you're talking about; don't let me shake you on that -- I tend to be much more frank when it comes to game design than most. That said:

No; not all RPG conventions are bad -- but we can see games like Fire Emblem, where they take the mechanics and try to deepen them, and compare to games like Final Fantasy [N] and while there's generally an experiment or two, it's still the same basic shallow mechanics.

I don't think you should invert every cliche. But we have to question what the cause is and re-approach it. In the case of game mechanics; we must examine what the mechanic is meant to do, and if we can do it in a better way. In the case of plot or art, we need to determine what sort of reaction we want it to evoke, and see if it does that effectively.

In the case of RPGs, we need to frequently reexamine game mechanics because they frequently make no sense. There are very few reasons anyone should ever survive more than a few gunshots without medical attention; which means if guns do 15-30 damage, a really touch person shouldn't be able to sustain much more than 100 damage.

Specific example aside, you object to the phrase 'make sense'; so I'll offer the literary equivalent, 'Suspension of disbelief'. The issue at hand is that we know that with fiction, things aren't going to operate the same way they do in the real world; we CHOOSE to ignore the things that are glossed over or changed in order to support the fiction. However, this doesn't mean we'll ignore anything, we have limits. To avoid exceeding the limits of someone's disbelief, there are a couple things we can do.

The foremost is to be internally consistent -- things inside fiction need to be predictable, even if they are extraordinary or otherwise unreal. This is why for example, people get pissed when a character dies in a cutscene and can't be revived with items later.

The second thing we can do is avoid making things inconsistent with reality where we can avoid it. This is the big one RPGs fail at. Once due to technical restrictions, but now generally out of tradition.

Let's take your 100 bottles of rum example -- assuming you can't avoid requiring the player to carry mass amounts of healing items, why not dole out rum in shots or swigs -- the way people actually drink it? Characters could carry 1 bottle of rum with 20 shots in it; at that point carrying 5 * 20 shots isn't all that ridiculous, and it wouldn't be difficult to code.

But your ongoing example is symptomatic of a flawed premise. You need your players to hoard 100 bottles of rum because they need to have something to spend their money on and prep for fights. However, you could give them plenty of other things to spend money on -- upkeep for food, arms and armor, for example. Upgrades and repair for a ship. And with a pirate theme -- hoarding money could have an impact on the character's happiness/wellbeing/stats.

As for fights -- much like how in many RPGs you can grind levels to make fights easier, hoarding items helps to strip out the tactical elements present in traditional RPG combat. As the designer, YOU can ensure that any battle is survivable without thousands of items -- take Earthbound for example; each party member has an unshared inventory that is limited to about 20 items, including Equipment. This requires you to decide if lugging all those healing items around is worthwhile, or if you want to be able to collect more items as you travel. It adds strategy. Smaller inventories will encourage players to use disposable items, rather than hoard them and make saving them a more careful consideration.

(cont.)

Greg said...

"Meat healing your wounds doesn't "make sense," but it's [...] better than making the player do [...] realistic first-aid gameplay to heal themselves in the middle of a fight"
My point is, you can design fights where minimal/temporary healing (like Fallout's Super-stim paks) is all you need, and then gloss over the first aid outside of combat.

Now; you might think this is a matter of taste (or opinion) and i agree, it is. A game can operate under any bizarre conventions it wants. HOWEVER... you lament RPGs falling out of favor in the community at large, and I will tell you now, it's because they only appeal to a narrow niche. Most people who enjoy the kinds of stories that RPGs create will prefer to read comics or books. People who enjoy the style of mechanics that RPGs use will prefer to play strategy or adventure games. And while there's a huge amount of people who would enjoy a great strategy adventure with a great story, the reality is that the dissonance between game mechanics and game flavor is destroying the suspension of disbelief for a wider audience -- and it's something you'll need to address if you want to make your games to break in new ground.

Adam Lawrence Miller said...

Couple of thoughts, though first I'd like to say that Dubloon does look impressive for a one person effort (and I'm tempted to check it out). I love the pirate setting, which it seems to occur in.

The issue of time, as you mention, is a huge obstacle. Most people assign some sort of value to their time. If I'm going to devote 50 hours to a game, I don't care if it's free or $60 -- I just want it to be good, in which case I'm going to generally veer away from freeware, which tends to be not quite as good (there are of course exceptions).

It's also worth pointing out that the RPG, as it exists to day, IS one of the most stagnant genres. Why? Well, for one there's very little "role playing." How is selecting "shoot fireball" from a list of commands playing a role?

There's a great gamasutra article discussing games like Nethack, and how the modern RPG offers no real risk (you are more or less guaranteed to level and thus improve), and so can become tedious. I find this to be true -- it also diminishes the experience that I am playing a role, because I never feel poisoned or wounded or whatever, as there's no carry-over if I can revert to a save point.

In short, the genre in general not only fails to deliver on its promise -- that of playing a role -- but leans way too heavily on conventions, like leveling and fantasy settings, as well as arbitrary enemies like bunnies and talking plants.

BrandonIXI said...

Nicely said Banov. I still have my first RPG as well. I like to look back on it and see the progress that I've made.

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david said...

this changes my opinion on what an rpg can be great story and fun gameplay without repetetive super long battles

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