Thursday, October 04, 2007
What Makes a Great RPG - Everything Else
And now, the exciting conclusion of the series on what makes a great computer role-playing game! I've been borrowing heavily from comments by dozens and dozens of posters, cribbing from notes from interviews by developers and journalists, and occasionally interjecting a semi-original thought or two of my own.
I've suggested that a "great RPG" (referring to a single-player computer / console RPG) is one that manages to push us emotionally and mentally in the direction of an ideal experience - sort of a conglomeration of the kinds of experiences players seem to want. Achieving the ideal is a practical impossibility, but we keep trying to push the experience in little ways in that direction. The challenge is that the sort of things that pushes the buttons and encourages suspension of disbelief varies from player to player.
We talked about four different areas that a great RPG should address - the world, the "role-playing" experience, the story, and the mechanics. As I was writing these articles, it occurred to me that there were some guidelines that wouldn't fit in the other categories. And I realized that putting them in an extra article would give me one more day where I didn't have to come up with a new article topic. BONUS!
A great RPG is memorable, or has memorable moments
It's not just about doing everything perfectly. A great RPG must stand out in some way and be memorable. It's about having moments that strike home emotionally, surprise us, shake us up, or whatever. This is true of all game genres, not just RPGs. People talked for YEARS about that moment in the original Unreal game where the lights turned off one by one before the Skaarj attack.
A great RPG may not get everything right, but it has to have nothing horribly wrong.
Many players expressed an opinion that they really don't demand that an RPG - even a great one - achieve excellence in every category. You may disappoint those players who really favor the area you slight, but many players noted that some of their favorite RPGs didn't have many of the "key features" they look for. But the trick is that the game mustn't screw anything up really badly. A bad interface, poor saved-game handling, irritating dialog, confusing or boring quests, or frustrating bugs will bring the player's enjoyment screeching to a halt in no time.
The RPG should be digestible in small chunks.
In GDC one year, one of the speakers noted that jRPG sub-quests were designed to be playable within 2 hours. That is reportedly because they found that this was the average play-time of a single game session in Japan. While the actual timings may be very flexible, the important point is to make sure that the player can make real progress and not lose the thread of the story when playing in the short sessions demanded by players with real lives who don't work in the publisher's testing department.
The RPG should have a theme.
Call it a moral, principle, or even an open-ended question - a theme is important in story, and it should be important to RPGs (or any other story-based game). It doesn't need to be overt, and it doesn't necessarily require the player to agree with it --- but it should get him or her thinking. A game doesn't even need to go far beyond "Kill the Foozle" to come up with a theme --- just going into the reason why he needs to be killed --- what he did so wrong (besides being evil and trying to take over the world). Theme should ideally go beyond just story and permeate every aspect of the game, if only subtly - from the game world to the very mechanics. Unfortunately, the rush to have "multiple endings" in modern games might jeopardize any attempt at having a theme.
A Great RPG Should Have Plenty of Optional, Hidden Content
Hey, it worked for Super Mario Brothers, right? Seriously, though - nothing enhances the feeling of exploration like knowing that there may be much more beneath the surface and off the mandatory path.
The RPG should offer multiple solutions to most challenges
I think Lord British once said that his job as a designer was to design one solution to a challenge in his game, but then not to close off any alternate solutions the player might devise. Few things in an RPG are as satisfying and as immersive to a player as feeling that you out-witted the game or somehow did it your own way. That freedom can be far more empowering and delightful than any number of multiple endings.
The RPG should offer a variety of activities
This shouldn't necessarily require vastly different gameplay or player skills - in fact, preferably, they should not. But the game should keep exposing new activities and ways of interacting with itself. A simple puzzle here, a riddle there (preferably one that can by bypassed or have the answer discovered by other means if the player isn't feeling particularly brilliant), some other non-combat activities ranging from flipping switches and having conversations to... well, box-stacking is a terrible example, but it's at least a well-known (and overused, in the 90's) one.
The RPG should not have onerous copy protection
I just had to throw that one in there, not only because of some of the recent fiascos involving anti-piracy measures, but some of the annoyances of the old games, like documentation look-up every time you play the game.
Ultima IV was probably the first RPG that had a real "theme" to it, where it suggested universal virtues common to all people and cultures. Ultima V suggested that it is wrong to attempt to legally enforce these virtues upon people (funny than two decade later, we're orbiting this very idea with the rash of anti-videogame legislation). Ultima VI had as its theme the premise that enemies may only be enemies because of misunderstandings and lack of communication. Final Fantasy VII had an eco-friendly theme that mankind must learn to live in harmony with the world and responsibly use its resources, or we may destroy it.
As I mentioned in a previous article, Wizardry 7 has an early challenge which was really intended to be solved one way, but it appeared technically possible (as far as I could tell, not having tried it) to brute-force it. Even that small choice greatly enhanced the game for me. On the negative side, Wizardry 7 also has a very annoying copy-protection of a kind that was fortunately dying out around the time this game was released - it required a manual look-up every time you played.
Daggerfall had a TON of artifacts hidden around the otherwise procedurally-generated world, hinted at by various books throughout the game. Morrowind also had some pretty neat secrets. Even Oblivion had a few. All of the games had plenty of the world you might never explore - a huge feature of the games - though they all had something of a procedurally-generated flavor that could leave a bad aftertaste after a while.
The Final Fantasy games typically have tons of "secret" content to get the best weapons, fight the "real" bosses, side-quests, etc. Just in case the 60+ hours you spend playing the game weren't enough for you.
When it comes to poorly-handled "activity variety," the temple puzzles in Final Fantasy X really bugged me. They were extremely divergent from the main gameplay and the later ones got very long and tedious. On the other hand, there were some simple pressure-plate puzzles in games like Eye of the Beholder II that I recall being pretty cool once you figured them out (principally figuring out that you could drop items on the pressure plates to hold them down).
What Players Say
"FFX - Sure, you could beat the game in ~40 hours. However, if you wanted to complete everything, to beat the most secretest, hiddenest, uberest boss evar, you had to sink countless hours into that game. 100? Not nearly enough." - Vegedus, at Twenty Sided
"A while ago when I discussed about games with a friend, I was asked why I value a certain game so highly. I was baffled for a moment, thinking about if I should point at the great story, the amazing graphics, the ease of control. I decided that all of those need too many words to explain and said `Because it made me laugh and cry' ... and I think this was the most truthful answer. A game makes the step to great if it catches me, makes me feel involved." - Hajo, Rampant Games forums
"Let the player farm XP if they want to. Let them fight low level foes without penalty if they want to. This is not cheating. This is simply another way to play the game. Maybe the player is new to RPGs and needs the help. Maybe they would rather move more slowly and steamroll over foes instead of moving more quickly and occasionally dying or running away. It’s their character. Let them play it on their own terms." - Shamus Young, Twenty Sided
"Roguelike developers often point out that games should offer players ways to escape difficult situations. Most roguelikes do not allow to safe and reload, and death is final there. But most of them give the player a lot of escape routes if one knows how to use them. I think that is the better design. Make players think, but not about when to safe, but how to solve a situation they face. And give them the chances to do it. " - Hajo, Rampant Games Forums
* What Makes a Great RPG?
* What Makes a Great RPG - The Answer?
* What Makes a Great RPG - The World
* What Makes a Great RPG - Playing a Role
* What Makes a Great RPG - The Story
* What Makes a Great RPG - Mechanics
* What Makes a Great RPG (Twenty-Sided)
* What Makes a Great RPG, Part II (Twenty-Sided)
* What Makes a Great RPG, Part III (Twenty-Sided)
Discussion on the Forum! Woot!