Thursday, May 17, 2007

Building a Better RPG

Thought I'd take a break from upping the Doggerel Index for a bit, and just kind of ramble on about stuff I'd like to see in RPGs. I should really try spending some actual time with one of the illions of retro-RPG makers out there.

1. No elaborate level up rituals. One of the things I didn't like about Final Fantasy X was the sphere system. It looks swanky, but it's entirely too cumbersome. I found myself worrying that if I pumped up one character, I wouldn't have the relevant spheres for the next, and that there'd be scarcity for the 'key spheres' and I'd be stuck with limited character potential. I also had to think about what I'd do down the line by searching the winding paths. All in all, it was like the unhealthy amounts of time I spent in my Armored Core's garage, only in a bad, unfun way. Just let me save the world without the micromanagement, okay?

2. Customization: On the opposite end of the spectrum, I don't like systems where you can't control what skills your characters develop. I loved the job systems of FF5 and FF Tactics. You had a reasonable amount of control, and you didn't have to juggle oodles of factors to do it. Just spend job points or fight monsters for AP, and you can be what you want to be. The downside to having too much of this is that you may risk the character's identity. I spent some time playing Ramza as a summoner in FFT, and in a cutscene, he drew a sword. It felt weird.

3. Flatter power curves: I was replaying the original FF in Dawn of Souls, with the new mechanics. The really annoying thing was that just playing regularly with a few trips through the special add-on dungeons, I wound up staying far ahead of all the enemies. When you can beat the previously dreaded WarMech (renamed 'Death Machine') in a single round without going through a leveling frenzy, something's gone wrong. Additionally, extremely high level changes don't make all that sense half the time. The empire has guards with 10,000 hitpoints as you get to the end, but early on, they sent squads of 40 hp grunts after you? I think it'd be an interesting challenge to make an RPG that leaves your power fairly constant and challenges you to use your abilities in innovative ways.

4. If you have a choice between simplicity and complexity, favor simplicity. Some plots just get too big and collapse under their own weight.

5. Allow an evil ending: Sometimes, I'm just curious to see what it'd be like if Zeromus and his loyal henchman (me) got to munch on everyone's soul or whatever. Heck, I think it'd be interesting to see an RPG where you're explicitly evil and stay that way up until you conquer the world. That's one reason I tried playing 7th Saga as Lejes, the demon, until I heard that there was one standard ending for all the characters.

6. If you lose to the final boss, you should definitely show the consequences. That's one thing that got me so determined to beat Chrono Trigger after my first defeat. Had a friend who beat FF7 after a few tries, and Chrono Trigger was fresh on my mind after borrowing a copy. "What happens if you lose the final battle?" "Oh, just the Game Over screen." Boy, was I disappointed.

7. Kill random encounters. I don't like them, and I think I can safely assume you don't either. I could probably tolerate them if they were rare, or very localized. All they do is slow down the story. In retrospect, they also probably took up a lot of memory in the early console cartridges that could have been used for the real meat of the game. If you must have monsters wandering about, do it like Earthbound/Mother 2: They're visible and often avoidable. If you're strong enough, the monsters just plain die without the formalities of entering attack commands. If you're really strong, they'll run away from you.

8. We'll settle for saving the kingdom: Let's keep the stakes a bit more reasonable, here. Plots where you end up saving the world are good in moderation, but let's not make every game go that far, okay? Plus, if you make a sequel, it won't strain credibility to think that the world could come close to ending twice in a character's lifetime.

9. You're not alone: If you're out to save the kingdom, chance are, there'll be other people out there who will want to do the same. Chances are, they'll also wind up helping you in actually helpful ways, rather than getting the JSDF (get yourself blown up to show how powerful the bad guy is) treatment.

10. Make sure your villains at least skimmed The Evil Overlord List.

So, anyone else want to contribute?

22 comments:

Joshua said...

Man, right on. A lot of these same things really bug me about RPGs.

Particularly MMOs. The level disparities are a bit annoying if you have friends who play more or less or started earlier or later than you. A lot of times, they flat out block you from playing with people if you're aren't at the same level. Lame.

I know WoW tried to solve that by setting the level cap relatively low. I don't play myself, but it seems to have worked. I'd rather just ditch levels and stats altogether, though.

What you said about adding abilities rather than grinding up numbers rings true with me. Maybe some people get excited watching arbitrary numerical values tick upward periodically, but personally I get way more stoked when I learn an awesome new spell or attack or something.

Same goes for items, actually. Collecting new items is awesome and fun. It feels like an accomplishment, especially if your new helmet or sword just looks awesome. Way, way more exciting than killing a rat and watching your XP tick over.

Joshua said...

Oh. Just adding that I recently played FF3 for the DS, and it was amazing. Best RPG I've played, although KotOR threatens to edge it out just by the Star Wars factor. But in terms of mechanics and all the rest, FF3 was the bizzomb.

I picked up FFVI later on and... Not doing it for me. You get this huge cast of characters and you just don't fucking care about most of them. I don't, anyway. And a lot of them just seem useless.

And the FF series is the worst ever when it comes to random encounters. Even more so because they more or less force you to do a lot of random encounters just to level enough to get through the story parts. Annoying, in my opinion, but I guess it was a useful way to pad out the gameplay back in the cartridge era. There's no reason for a modern RPG to do it, though.

Rev. BigDumbChimp said...

Did you ever play Fallout or Fallout 2? Two of my all time favorite RPGs. Theres a 3 coming out soon but who knows what they'll do to it.

Bronze Dog said...

One odd thing: I know Akusai razzed on it, but I liked the Mega Man Battle Network series, or at least the first few before the gross repetition set in, but I suppose being in the card game mentality helped me:

Most of the game, your power level doesn't really increase all that much. Mostly it's a matter of building a cohesive deck, er, folder. Thing I tended to go for: Swords + Area Grab (increase my area and decrease my opponent's) + Lance (Attack the rear line and push them forward)

'Leveling up' largely consisted of just simple stuff like hitpoints (to make failed dodging less dangerous) and charging up your buster (not used all that often if you've got a good folder)

But, the game wore thin.

---

No, I haven't played any Fallout games.

Infophile said...

Here ya go, ten of my own:

1. Avoid ridiculous low-chance occurences. One of the things I disliked about the otherwise-excellent game Earthbound was that there were a bunch of items that had a 1/128 chance of dropping off of a certain type of enemy. The only way to get them was to fight the enemies repeatedly for potentially hours. Worse yet, one of the enemies (Super Starman, which dropped the Sword of Kings), was only available for a short time in the game. Final Fantasy XII pulled a similar stunt with having treasure chests that had a 1% or less chance of having the item you wanted. To get it, you had to save your game, run through tons of enemies to get to it, and then open the chest and repeat if you didn't get it. It was this mechanic that eventually made me discard the game in disgust.

2. Translate it into English. There are tons more gamers in North America than in Japan, and they have money just waiting to be used. Chances are you're going to profit by localizing many games. In the past, we've missed out on many great games over here. We're getting more recently, but still not all of them (still missing Mother 3).

3. No surprise final bosses. One of the bad aspects of Final Fantasy 9 is that you don't meet or even get any clues to the existence of the real final boss until right after you defeat the character who you thought would be the final boss. And then you fought him for one battle, and it's over. If you want to do a surprise, at least drop hints throughout the game that it's coming. It's less of a surprise, but it's not so cheap.

4. Make the protagonist relevant. One of my other big problems with FFXII was that the main character had virtually no reason to actually go on the adventure. He was just there because he was the main character. (The game would have worked a lot better with either Balthier or Ashe as the main character.)

5. Give us a challenge. It seems that RPGs are getting way too easy these days. If I didn't want to work at it, I'd just read a book or watch a movie. Optional dungeons after the final boss are a great idea (just give some bonus storyline or awesome items for completing them), but don't go the route of Disgaea and make the only challenge grinding out enough levels to be able to handle them. The weapons of FFVII worked well here as they could be defeated at reasonable levels with the right strategy.

6. Puzzles. I love puzzles, and we need way more games that have the puzzle concentration and quality of Lufia 2.

7. Reduce loading times as much as you can. Nothing kills an experience like having to wait ten seconds every time you move to a different screen. Personally, I'll even sacrifice graphics for better loading times, though I know not everyone will.

8. Have your games playtested by people not involved with development before release, and don't get all defensive if they point out what they perceive as design flaws. When you make a game (or anything), you can become attached to a lot of aspects of it and your own little innovations. However, the gamer might end up hating it, and it's best to figure this out before you release it.

9. Give rewards for playing through the game multiple times. This is one thing the Chrono games did really well, with the New Game+ feature and the ability to get many many new endings in subsequent playthroughs. Also, Chrono Cross's plot branching in a couple points gave another good reason to play through multiple times (though they made the bad choice of making Glenn, one of the best characters, only available if you took one particular branch which was also the one players were less likely to take and which led to less storyline).

10. Develop your characters. Although Chrono Cross had over 40 playable characters in it, most of them only got a few lines of backstory and seemed pretty pointless. Less than 5 of them seemed to be fully-fleshed out. Quantity of characters is not an excuse to sacrifice quality; look at Suikoden V. It has 108 recuitable characters, and every one of them comes with around 5 times as much development as the Chrono Cross average.

Bronze Dog said...

Oh, I got the Sword of Kings in my last playthrough of Earthbound. I'm fully aware of how probability can gank a person, but the odds seemed significantly less than 1 in 128. I went through at least 3 times that many Super Starmen.

One of the most dreaded phrases for the item hunters: "... randomly drops..." I'd rather deal with a full-blown side quest/dungeon than several hours of trudging in circles through the same forest.

Infophile said...

Oh agreed, I'd love doing a sidequest or dungeon instead. It seems particularly appropriate for something like that which is the only item Poo can equip to increase is attack power.

Bronze Dog said...

Something else I'd like to see: Talk about having to collect all X power items to beat the final villain... Except you manage to defeat him before you collect them all. You might get the rest in a sequel, or the ones you got might be sealed up in a vault in case some other evil comes along in said sequel.

Another thing: Cut down on buying tougher and tougher equipment with every town. Have some standard weapons, and some tougher ones that you have to go on quests for. Weapons would be made special by their abilities, rather than big numbers. I'm thinking something like the weapons in FFX, or materia slots from FF7, and the quest-worthy equipment would have unique abilities, maybe with some powers that unlock as you use the weapon more and more.

Infophile said...

Heh, one funny idea I had with the X power items would go something like this: First, at a few points throughout the game, the player is required to collect miscellaneous sets of items at different times. Then, eventually they're told to defeat the final boss, they need to get the "27 gems of blahblah, which were scattered throughout the world in its infancy."

Then, just as the player is groaning, cut to the next line: "They're in the vault downstairs; here's the key."

Bronze Dog said...

Funny thought: Intro scene. Spunky teenager with spikey hair and a wooden sword. He gets killed, and you play as his mentor, out to get revenge for your apprentice's death.

Akusai said...

I don't know if you've ever played them or not, but the Quest for Glory series by old-school Sierra was a fantastic fusion of RPG and Adventure gaming that avoided pretty much all of these pitfalls. The monsters existed on the screen (though they did take you to a special battle screen where you controlled the fight directly in all but the last installment), it was skill-based so there were no level-ups in that sense at all, and you could play your character as any of three archetypes or mix it up as you desired, it had some really solid adventure game puzzles (some of the best in the old genre that could often be solved in multiple ways based on your chosen skillset), great humor, realistic villains, multitudes of sidequests many of which affected the goodness of the ending, etc. The power curve was fairly shallow, you didn't get to upgrade your weapons (you had your sword or dagger and your wits) so it really never ceased to be a challenge.

I highly recommend them.

Rev. BigDumbChimp said...

I guess my problem here is htat I see RPGs being more the baldurs gate, Fallout, D&D styled games vs. the Japanese styled FF games. I know they both are RPGs but i just find the former much more immersive than the latter......


flame on

Akusai said...

I guess my problem here is htat I see RPGs being more the baldurs gate, Fallout, D&D styled games vs. the Japanese styled FF games.

I know exactly what you mean. Japanese games have somehow been christened "Role Playing" when you don't really play any role at all. The characters make their own decisions, the story drives itself, and you're just kind of in the passenger's seat making a few decisions here and there.

Don't get me wrong, I love a good Japanese RPG, but I prefer a good American PC RPG.

Maronan said...

I'm a writer and infrequent (if at all) player of RPGs, so I may be a little biased, but...

1. If there is a Villain who is Evil and a Hero who is Good, you're doing it wrong. It seems every RPG I hear of has a clearly-defined Good Guys vs. Bad Guys feel to it. In a good RPG, you should be able to pick either side in a conflict and be able to justify that you're on the side of righteousness. The "official" D&D with the big rulebooks takes the Good Guys vs. Bad Guys to an absurd extreme by assigning "alignments" of Good or Evil to characters. Morality is not genetic, guys! Not everything is about Allies vs. Nazis!

2. What, exactly, is a "level?" No levels! Abilities should be gained from training and/or visiting teachers/skilled masters, not killing enemies at random until you have reached an arbitrary number and get a "level up" that magically adds new abilities to your character.

3. "Wellness" is doggerel in real life, but it doesn't make for a good RPG either. I oppose the use of determining well-being from "hitpoints" which are reduced after each hit regardless of how or where you get hit. Under the hitpoints model, punching someone in the arm repeatedly yields the same effect as putting a bullet through their brain. Is technology advanced enough to generate a realistic way of determining how hits would affect a character?

4. My personal thing, not a fully real suggestion: Use anti-clichés, especially those that will trick an "experienced" player and force him to reevaluate. The zombie approaching you is not hostile just because he is a zombie. The angelic being is more corrupt than all of the local politicians put together. The dragons do not want to harm you. They may look like guardians, but will let you walk past unless you attack them first. (Red orb guardians?) The graceful unicorn, on the other hand, intends to impale you rather violently. That's why he's running towards you.

Bronze Dog said...

For hitpoints, I tend to do creative interpretations, and I avoid called shots: Characters with high hitpoints don't have kevlar skin that lets them be pincushioned with arrows: They're better at dodging. I think of the majority of hitpoints as something of a 'luck' index: If your 20th level fighter's hp is down to half, he's got minor cuts and bruises, is breathing hard, etcetera, but he's not seriously injured, yet.

I don't take alignment too seriously. A handful of critters, like outsiders, are innately one thing or another (well, in their case, because they were that way in their mortal life), but the majority of mortal sentient beings have a choice.

Experience: I'd like to avoid having monster hunts as the only way. That's why I'm fond of non-combat xp bonuses. Spellcasters should spend time in the library, clerics should preach, etcetera.

Infophile said...

4. My personal thing, not a fully real suggestion: Use anti-clichés, especially those that will trick an "experienced" player and force him to reevaluate. The zombie approaching you is not hostile just because he is a zombie. The angelic being is more corrupt than all of the local politicians put together. The dragons do not want to harm you. They may look like guardians, but will let you walk past unless you attack them first. (Red orb guardians?) The graceful unicorn, on the other hand, intends to impale you rather violently. That's why he's running towards you.

You should read some of Neil Gaiman's work. With him, it's practically a law that every character will act contrary to their expected nature.

Joshua said...

No surprise final bosses. One of the bad aspects of Final Fantasy 9 is that you don't meet or even get any clues to the existence of the real final boss until right after you defeat the character who you thought would be the final boss. And then you fought him for one battle, and it's over. If you want to do a surprise, at least drop hints throughout the game that it's coming. It's less of a surprise, but it's not so cheap.

This is one of the most impressive things about the writing in Half-Life 2, and I think Valve were right to talk it up in all their interviews. From the very beginning of the game, Breen and the Citadel are absolutely omnipresent. So when you finally reach the Citadel in the last chapter and when you finally meet Breen face to face, the build-up pays off with the feeling of "Holy shit, this is really it." You get a much better feeling of progression and accomplishment when you know from the start what you goal is.

What, exactly, is a "level?" No levels! Abilities should be gained from training and/or visiting teachers/skilled masters, not killing enemies at random until you have reached an arbitrary number and get a "level up" that magically adds new abilities to your character.

To some extent, you're hamstrung into levels by the nature of the underlying math. It genuinely doesn't make much sense for some poor farmboy to be able to pick up the Most Powerful Weapon in the World and innately know how to use it and all of its crazy magical abilities. The problem is, as you say, that the method of gaining levels in most RPGs is pretty arbitrary. This is part of the reason for the random encounters that show up in many RPGs.

I think that Morrowind (I haven't played Oblivion, but I believe it's the same) did this as well as could be managed. Rather than having a generic pool of XP, you'd have levels in each individual skill, technique, or magic, and you could boost your levels either by finding a tutor or simply by using the particular skill you want to advance. Pretty intuitive, I thought. Morrowind, of course, also had levels, but they were based on the progression of the subskills, rather than the other way around, which is how most games have it.

On the subject of alignment, I think that, as Bronze Dog said about hitpoints, you can creatively interpret it to make sense. I tend to see it rather as an expression of a character's past deeds than some in-born quality. An Evil character is Evil because he's done Evil things in the past. Or, as in D&D, because he's sworn allegiance to an Evil deity.

But I think the main point is that Evil and Good as absolutes don't make a lot of sense because surely even the Evil characters will think they're doing the Right Thing, they just have a skewed vision of what the Right Thing is. In that sense, I think Warhammer's Chaos vs. Everything Else distinction is a bit more sensible. The forces of Chaos are recognisably Evil, but within the game universe "Evil" doesn't really apply. (I mean, when the "good guys" are xenophobic theocrats who routinely do things that would make Torquemada blush, the standards of good and evil as we understand them don't really apply.)

Dunc said...

Interesting... I haven't played an RPG in 15 years or so, but most of the problems with XP, HPs and the like were resovled (in pen-and-paper games) even then. GDW (Traveller, Twilight2000) used a pretty nifty task-based XP system (as far as I recall), where you got XP in a specific skill for performing tasks close to the limit of your ability. And the combat system in Cyberpunk was pretty good - very hard to hit anyone, but if you get hit, you go down, and if you don't get medical assistance toot sweet, you're in serious danger of death or permanent disability... I can't even remember if they used HPs at all.

The only problem with these systems was that they required good planning from the ref, and lots of paperwork - neither of which should be a problem in PC RPGs. Is it lazy game design, or are they just giving the players what they think they want?

Oh, and Cyberpunk had a really nifty character-generation system that let you produce a more-or-less complete background for a character, with Traumatic Life Experiences galore. No alignment bollocks, but if your characters weren't fucked up, out for revenge and / or addicted to drugs, you just weren't doing your job right! The big challange for a ref was coming up with a plausible scenario to force your players to co-operate at all.

King Aardvark said...

I definitely agree on the american vs japanese rpgs. I could never get into a japanese rpg. Good stories but crappy rpgness.

Maronan, a great rpg that bends traditional roles is Planescape:Torment. If you haven't heard of it, it uses the same engine as Baldur's Gate (though heavily tweaked) and is set in one of the weirder d&d worlds. Great game.

Tom Foss said...

You should read some of Neil Gaiman's work. With him, it's practically a law that every character will act contrary to their expected nature.

Sounds like you and I thought of the exact same character when maronan brought up the angel.

I'll admit, I've not played a whole lot of video game RPGs. I did a Pokémon or two in my younger years, and I slogged through about 95% of Final Fantasy VIII before I decided that I wanted all my characters to Lv 100 before I went on to the final boss, and got utterly bored with the game. Aside from that, I've played through about 2/3 of Mario RPG (when the emulator crashed :P) and I started FFVII at one point, but never had the time to get into it. You mention WoW, and while I've not touched it, I've played more Diablo II than I care to admit.

And yet, I'm with you on pretty much everything. You've outlined the things that frustrate me most about RPGs in general, whether video or pen-and-paper (with which I have considerably more experience).

A couple of things I'd add:
1. Avoid convenient plot twists. The overly-complicated (and utterly retarded) plot of Final Fantasy VIII was plagued with idiotic twists that revealed important information which really only served to make the story more ridiculous. Wait, it turns out that all the main characters were orphans? And they all grew up in the same orphanarium? And the main villain of the first act or two was their nanny? And they all happened to forget about it because the magical creatures that give them powers reside in the memory portion of their brains? What the hell? Look, it's one thing for two characters to share a mysterious past, or for the villain to be pulling the strings from behind the scenes, or for power to come at a terrible price; it's quite another thing to look at a list of plot twists and choose "all of the above."

2. And furthermore, not everyone needs to be the most important person in the universe. Most characters shouldn't be tied to every other character via a shady, seedy past. I spent a good portion of Junior High and High School playing the Star Wars RPG, and we laid down early on that none of the characters could have anything more than a passing familiarity with major folks from the Trilogy. No, you don't get to be a wicked-powerful Jedi training as Luke's apprentice as Chewbacca teaches you how to fly the Millennium Falcon.

Sadly, George Lucas didn't hear this rule, and so we get things like "hey, remember how cool Boba Fett is? Well it turns out he's a secret clone made of the guy that all the Stormtroopers are based on! And he's got a grudge against Obi-Wan!"

3. And the Star Wars RPG brings me to one of my pet peeves, which you touched on with levels and XP: abstract numerical quantities. I can't stands 'em, whether it's XP or HP or MP...especially MP. Like, what the hell? I can understand that magic has a cost, but a certain number of points? I prefer the systems where you gather or prepare spells in advance, or where magic is based on skill dice, or things of that nature, not where you have to pay for spells like they come from a vending machine. It takes a lot of the magic out of magic. That's one of the reasons I loved the SWRPG, and one of the reasons I stopped playing when West End Games folded. With WEG went their all-dice (6D, no less) system of resistance and the Force, to be replaced with abstract nonsense like HP and FP. If I get hit with a blaster shot or an arrow or something, make me roll defense. Maybe I luck out and it's just a flesh wound. Maybe I'm having a bad day and it hits a kidney. But in something as random as a fight, how badly you get hurt should be decided by something other than how many times you get hit.

The same with magical abilities. I've played several different magic-type systems, from SWRPG's "you have learned specific Force powers and have a certain level of skill in various qualities" to Mage's "describe it and don't worry so much about the dice" to some of the D&D-type "think ahead and prepare spells accordingly," and I like all of those better than "sorry, you're overdrawn at the magic points today."

Then again, I don't mind Mana so much. The idea that there's some kind of spiritual life-force that you draw on to cast magic doesn't bother me, and I think there ought to be some kind of cost for spellcasting, but it should be in terms of fatigue and power, not necessarily in terms of numbers. If you want to use your dying breath to cast a high-level, complex spell to banish the demon king to the netherworld, the theatrics should count more than the arithmetic.

Fantastic post, BD, and I've loved the comments from everyone.

Bronze Dog said...

Important ties: Yeah, I think it's more realistic, and even more heroic for characters to be relative nobodies. One thing I liked about replaying Zelda: Wind Waker with Link's island clothes is that he's no longer the stoic destined hero I always think of in the series: He's just a kid who got caught up in a lot of stuff.

Boba Fett specifically: For me, it was the Decemberween present effect: The mysterious bounty hunter was much more appealing than the revelation.

About MP: I don't really have a problem with it most of the time. It's when you have to think a little too much about the math. I prefer the situation to be either A) I can cast moderate spells regularly, and the occasional big one, and not worry too much between recovery areas, or B) My fighter with a little magic can perform one or two big special moves I'll save for the boss fight.

I like the idea of 'Vancian spellcasting' (prepared spells), and sometime I should get in a game as a D&D wizard, rather than my usual sorcerous tendencies.

JackalMage said...

Jeezus Haploid X, I've been away for a while.

BD, you absolutely *have* to play Fallout 1 and 2. They are right up there with Planescape: Torment in terms of being the best computer RPGs ever made. Seriously. And pretty much everyone who's ever played them will agree with me. ^_^

Second, you and I have to play some D&D sometime. You ever looked into message-board gaming? I don't have time for a regular group, but with message boards I can be in several games at once. They run a *lot* slower than ordinary games, since you're only posting once a day or so, but that's just their style. It means that you can spend a lot more time on character development and atmosphere, plus you can play in several at the same time.