Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

How Much of a CRPG Should Be “Optional?”

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 1, 2011

I asked this on Twitter yesterday, with a couple of responses, but I thought I’d post this on the ol’ blog as well, as I’ve noted that the masochistic folks who hang around here tend to be pretty educated on the subject of RPG design.

So today, I wanted to talk about optional content.

Generally speaking, in an RPG you have a start-point at the beginning of the game, and one or more final goals or conclusions. Maybe there’s a choice at the end  – destroy the evil wizard, or join him, or something, but the final “end” goals tend to be somewhat related and take you on a similar path. Now, that path is the key point. It may be pretty rigid and linear, as it is in most jRPGs, with events or tasks following in a pretty specific order. Or there may be a number of “checkpoints” that must be achieved in an order that is less rigidly defined to get you to the endgame.  In some cases, not all the checkpoints / sub-goals need to be achieved – some may be mutually exclusive, or it may simply be a case of you needing to obtain X of the Y necessary steps.

And then, there are things to do in the world that are completely optional. They may help you towards your main goal only indirectly (by helping you to obtain more power / knowledge / items / troops, etc.)  and add some story-based awards. But they can be safely bypassed by the player completely.

As a game developer, this is a little scary if you are developing any custom content for the optional areas of the game. Why would you spend all that time and effort making something that maybe only 10% of the players will ever see? If game-players were living in a vacuum, that would be a much bigger deal, but we gamers – contrary to how the media likes to portray us – tend to be pretty social. We talk. And we love games that allow us to compare different experiences.

But how much of that experience should be “optional?” The approach even among the classics are pretty widely varied. Even the games we celebrate as being so free-form typically had very little “interesting” content that was completely optional. If you found a dungeon in the game, there was usually some reason you’d have to visit it at some point in the game in your chain of tasks leading to the conclusion. That is, unless you have spoilers handy and are able to bypass certain vital clues / passwords.

In Shay Addam’s book, The Official Book of Ultima, he records industry legend Warren Spector’s surprise when joining the Ultima VI team:

… Spector ran into an unfamiliar problem, even for a game designer with such a varied background as his. “I was thinking in terms of how one would write a novel or a paper-and-pencil role-playing game — you know, with subplots and things that don’t really related to the major task at hand.” Spector had imagined being able to incorporate a diversity of characters who, though they added shading and nuance to the game world, were not essential to the main goal. Spector found it hard to believe that, as [Richard] Garriott had warned him, every single character they created would wind up playing a decisive role.

“I said, no, we’ll have subplots, and it will be great,” as Spector recalls. “We’ll have little side quests that people can go on.” But as their work progressed and they delved deeper into the process of turning the Ultima VI notebook into a full-blown game, it became clear to Spector that Garriott knew precisely what he was doing. “Everybody in the realm ended up being a crucial link in a chain that adds up to this immense, huge, wonderful, colossal world,” Spector said, reliving an unmistakable sense of awe at having participated in the project. “It was a remarkably complicated process, and that notebook was the key to keeping it all together.”

In some ways, this kind of backfired. In a retrospective play-through and review of the following game in the series, Ultima VII: The Black Gate, Noah Antwiler lampooned the convoluted chain of tasks that players must perform to accomplish one small, critical task. And a serious criticism fairly leveled at one of my favorites CRPGs, Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption was its extreme linearity, with pretty much zero optional content.

On the flip side, you have games like the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series, where most of the game seems to be made of optional content, and nobody will explore it all in a single play-through.  With procedural content generation or mutually exclusive quest lines, it’s often impossible.

And then you get everything in-between.  With an additional complication that a first-time player, working without cheating, may not be sure what’s optional and what isn’t.  And you have people who like to replay a game and make “100% runs,” or speed-runs. And then there’s how I became annoyed with Fallout 3 when I discovered that I was on the end-game track long before I was ready to give up exploring all the optional content, so I quit and went back to an earlier save-game deliberately avoided the final quest chain for a while. Particularly since, in that game, the final quest-chain pretty much SUCKED.

So in your view, how much of a CRPG should be “optional?” Are you a goal-oriented player who focuses on the main quest line, or are you the kind who kicks around and explores the game a bit, meandering around and following the storyline almost by accident? Or somewhere in-between? Do you like to fully explore the game and as much optional content (locations / quests) as possible on a single playthrough, or do you save that for a later replay?

Bringing it all home to why I’m asking these questions – Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon. I’ve found that I now have a significant number of dungeons and quests that are not required to complete the game. Hitting all the subquests and “mini-dungeons” may help you have an easier time of parts of the mid-game or end-game, but they can be completely bypassed.  Part of this was by design, but part of it has just accrued over time as parts of the world have gotten more “fleshed out.”  Some of it provides alternative means of accomplishing tasks in the game. As an example of the latter, in the pilot, it’s quite possible to bypass a whole bunch of rooms and make a beeline for the boss battle. You’ll be in for a real tough fight (and a tough lock to pick) if you do this, but it’s a viable alternative which I’m fairly pleased with.

But I get worried about the kinds of things Jeff Vogel recently noted about game difficulty. Not about combat difficulty per se, but about the realization of how different players will play – and possibly get stuck in a particular mode. Making a beeline for the ending, and then finding yourself poorly equipped and under-leveled for the final fights… will that make the game too difficult for some players who don’t realize they should probably have taken a more scenic route? Or, particularly with tricks like drama stars or possible balance holes in my admittedly pretty complex game mechanics, will players find the optional spots completely unnecessary, the final conflicts relatively easy, and the overall game annoyingly short? Will they get stuck and pissed off on a puzzle that they don’t realize can be bypassed via a clue given in an optional area?

I don’t really expect an answer to questions above given in abstract, but it is the kind of thing I’m feeling out.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 16 Comments to Read

  • Mark said,

    There are related issues. It’s possible to include optional content that feels mandatory (Mass Effect 2 loyalty missions come to mind), as well as mandatory content that feels optional (most of any given Dragon Quest).

    The ideal ratio depends on several factors. The first thing to decide is whether you want the emphasis of the game to be on the setting at large or on the overarching campaign. Call these camps “existence-oriented” and “experience-oriented.” A game can be both at different times.

    How strongly do the results of the optional content feed back into the core experience? If it’s weak (say, purely mechanical consequences, or a self-contained storyline), then use it to the extent that it’s existence-oriented. If it’s strong (say, it results in character development, or gives you hints about the endgame), then it’s more appropriate for an experience-oriented game, and the reason to make it optional is not so that the player can choose not to do it, but so that they can do it in the order they want.

    Another thing to consider is how far out of their way the player will have to go in order to do it. If it’s short or can be done along the way, then it’s a reward for players who take their time and pay attention as they ride your railroad. If you put the main quest on hold to go fuck off for in-game weeks on the other side of the planet with a sidequest that has its own climactic boss fight, then put it in an open-ended part of the game.

    How early in the game does the optional content become available? If the concept of “early” is meaningless in your game, then I would estimate you’ll shoot for about 80% optional content or more. If things open up gradually, then you probably don’t want to go above 50% optional; with each new development, you give the player a choice: stick around and have a bit of fun, or press onward. If it’s one of those cases where it’s very linear in the first half and very open-ended once you’ve gone through what is essentially a tutorial, then pretend everything related to the first half or the ending is mandatory, and figure the rest makes up 20% or less of the game.

    All of this is probably useless if you’re trying to make a Dungeon Crawler with a capital D and a capital C, rather than a more general sort of RPG. If this is the case, I can’t help you. That is one subgenre into whose groove I’ve not yet been able to get.

  • Ruber Eaglenest said,

    Well, I think to have optional quests to grind power so fast players get his ass kicked, but could recover making that optional, is, by my book, good practice.

  • McTeddy said,

    Hmmm… congrats… you have officially stumped me.

    I can’t give you any general rules that are best fit for everyone. So… instead… I will tell you how I play and how I tend to like it.

    I am one of those people who usually follows the main storyline at an insanely fast pace. I’ve never enjoyed random violence so I am usually making a strong attempt at avoiding minor encounters.

    Yes, that usually leaves me low leveled in the late game… but I, personally, understand that it is my own fault. I usually consider these higher difficulty battles to be more strategic, dangerous and entertaining. (And I wonder why people call me a masochistic gamer)

    I do sidequests on a regular basis… but it’s important to mention that I like them BECAUSE they are optional. If a quest doesn’t play a major role in advancing the main plot… don’t force me to play it. My time is valuable and I don’t want someone else choosing where I waste it.

    The only serious advice I can offer is just don’t lock the door behind a player without suitable warning. If I am going to lose the chance to play though side quests or level up my character… have a message tell me “There’s no turning back once we go through this door… Proceed?”

    Otherwise, I will be locked into an area without any chance to level, arm myself and stock up on healing items. THAT drives me nuts.

  • Xenovore said,

    My theory is that there are fundamentally two types of people: those that want full control over their destinies, and those that want (or need) everything handed to them (and on a golden platter, RIGHT NOW). (And I suppose there are those somewhere in the middle, but they are certainly moving towards one or the other type.)

    So, when it comes to games, there are those that want everything to be optional, e.g. the more “sandboxy” the better, and then there are those that want to be led by the nose.

    I am rather solidly on the side of “everything optional”. I prefer games like Morrowind, Fallout 3, and Ultima Online; I despise games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Age.

    And I definitely like “optional” when it comes to choices. E.g. “Do I turn in this magic ring for reputation? Or do I keep it because it makes me stronger? Or do I smash it with a hammer because I hate rings of all types?” That’s the kind of “optional” I prefer.

    Ultimately, how much optional content ends up depends entirely on what sort of players you’re catering to.

    Catering to those that want to do their own thing, explore, figure it out on their own, etc.? More optional stuff.

    Catering to the other crowd? Less optional stuff.

    Quote: “Why would you spend all that time and effort making something that maybe only 10% of the players will ever see?”

    That’s the sort of thinking that gives us games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Age! “Let’s make sure the players see everything; railroad them from one end to the other! It’s okay, we’ll let them press buttons occasionally so they feel like they’re interacting.” =P

    @McTeddy: The best option is to never lock the door behind the player.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Time was I’d enjoy that endless slog through trash mobs, gradually grinding my way towards victory.

    Now that I’m older, I view almost any sort of grind as being deliberately against me! With one thing and another, and especially work, I have less time for games. I want to be able to get to the meat of the game and story without endless trash mobs or equivalent in my way.

    The best game that comes to mind that summarises exactly what I look for is Ultima Underworld. There are plenty of hostiles, but also friendly areas and you know that descent will lead to harder trials whilst returning upwards can give you a welcome rest.

    In the other direction, you have Oblivion, which punishes you for grinding (unless you’re aware of how to play against the game mechanics). The problem with Oblivion though is more about finding those gems within the otherwise lacklustre game. You could never complete the main quest and be better off for it. It’s main problem in my eyes was that point made in the Vogel article you linked, if a dragon is as tough as goblin #0145 then it doesn’t seem like an achievement.

    Ultima VII, for all that I love the game, is rather an oddity. It gives the impression of being completely open and non-linear, and yet there is a path there which has been designed for you to follow. It is just a matter of how closely you decide to take that path. It didn’t lose anything in my eyes for this, and I was never bothered by the poor combat either, as that never felt like the focus of the game (unlike earlier games in the series, which had rather punishing combat sections).

    And now I’ve rambled on and kind of lost my thread.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    I think RPGs should be 100% optional. Government enforcement of playing RPGs is going too far!

    Er, wait…

    I think there is no one right answer. I think the more optional content you have, the more the world feels like a living world. The less optional content there is, the more the game can fit a traditional linear story. So, it kind of depends on what your goals are of teh game.

    Personally, I can enjoy both. I like exploring, but a good story is also fun.

  • Xian said,

    Many times I see the optional quests not really being optional. If you go straight for the main goal without doing those “optional” quests, you find you are too underpowered to complete it . I ran into this with Borderlands a while back. After 30 hours or so in the game I decided just to stick with the main path and finish it. Nope, it wasn’t going to happen without doing at least a good portion of those optional quests.

    I usually do most of the optional quests. I can probably count on the fingers of one hand how many RPGs I have replayed, so that means do it this time or it isn’t going to get done more than likely. Even the best RPGs I find have little replay value to me. Once I have explored the world and know the story I am done with it. Playing a different character might give me some alternate perspective, but most of the thrill is gone.

    Quote: “Why would you spend all that time and effort making something that maybe only 10% of the players will ever see?”
    That always reminds me of the decision by SSI not to include the end cinematic in the PC version of Eye of the Beholder. It would have required another floppy and they reasoned that very few people would ever see it so why go to the expense? After defeating the beholder it drops you straight to DOS with a single line of congratulations – the Amiga version had the proper ending included.

  • Xenovore said,

    @ Andy_Panthro:

    I’m not sure what you’re saying there… Are you equating having more optional content with grinding? I don’t think there’s necessarily a correlation there. Grinding can be purely optional, or in a game like Aion or Lineage, almost necessary. It goes both ways.

    And I associate “grinding” only with game-play that is boring and repetitive. There is no reason optional content has to inherently be boring. In my experience, games like Oblivion or Fallout 3 have plenty of optional content that is quite the opposite of boring. (And sometimes more fun and interesting than the primary content.)

    @ Brian:

    Quote: “I think RPGs should be 100% optional. Government enforcement of playing RPGs is going too far!”


    Quote: “…the more optional content you have, the more the world feels like a living world.”

    Totally agree.

  • Rob said,

    Quote: “Making a beeline for the ending, and then finding yourself poorly equipped and under-leveled for the final fights…”

    This is the first problem. One way of avoiding this is obviously level scaling. Oblivion’s implementation was pretty much hated by everyone, yet it was way too easy to become powerful in Morrowind. Fallout 3 & especially Fallout NV did a better job. But the problem I have with level scaling is that it is never explained. The monsters just get more powerful for no apparent reason other than the fact that the player is getting more powerful. This breaks immersion as the player is now once again at the centre of the world rather than just a part of it.

    Usually these games have a central plot which involves a big bad guy amassing an army to take over the world. This creates a second problem for players who like to explore and complete all side quests before taking on the main branch – the false sense of urgency. Why am I helping an old woman find 10 herbs for a magic potion to heal her wounded goat when there are thousands of orcs lead by an evil wizard just over the horizon waiting to do much more than just wound a goat?

    The solution to both problems is level scaling. However, the level scaling should be integrated into the plot and explained to the player though the plot. It shouldn’t be tied to the players level directly, but to events they encounter as they progress.

    A player who heads straight for the big bad guy will arrive much earlier than a player who likes to explore. So the big bad guy has had less time to prepare and amass his power and army, meaning that the player doesn’t need to be as well equipped and leveled to defeat him. First problem solved.

    Conversely, a player who likes to explore should encounter successive events that inform them that, while they’ve been wasting time healing goats, the big bad guy’s army has been increasing in size and/or power. Perhaps he has discovered a spell which unleashes demons from another dimension. A new, more powerful unit has been added to the game and explained through the plot, rather than just mysteriously appearing. The player also now knows that the more time they spend on unrelated side quests, they more time the big bad guy has to create his army. Of course, the player has also been levelling during this time, so his ability has increased to match, but by not tying the two together directly, the sense of urgency is more real. Second problem solved.

  • Andy_Panthro said,


    I’d read the Vogel link after the blog entry, so my thoughts turned to that rather than the subject at hand, which lead to a slightly odd posting perhaps.

    I’m generally pro-optional areas, so long as they don’t interfere too much with the flow of the game (or the game specifically allows for such non-linearity).

    As for Oblivion/Fallout 3, I would suggest the lengthier optional content is almost always better than the primary. Which is why I mentioned in my earlier comment that you could be better off (have a more enjoyable experience) in Oblivion without ever touching the main quest.

    True sandbox style games like that are generally rare though, and most have a linear path to follow.

    Optional areas in that case can be useful distractions from the main quest, or provide ways to level up more without grinding. I suppose all that beta testing and whatever is there to make sure an optional area is not required to complete the game (otherwise it ceases to be optional).

  • BenD said,

    I am a completionist. If I can play your game at all (I would need a Windows machine, not in my current repertoire of objects) when it’s released, I will play all of it. If it’s impossible to play all of it in one run, I will do one run ‘blind’ and naive to the roads not taken… and then FAQ/walkthrough my way to achieving my own personal sense of ‘I have seen everything in this game.’ That personal sense may or may not always be accurate and a sense of doubt is often what prompts me to go looking for a walkthrough.
    Long story short, I like optional content, particularly when the game is strong and the experience is enjoyable. I prefer it when optional content is related to the main story, but also fairly self-contained – as much as I like the idea of optional content affecting the main story in huge (optional) ways, in practice I find that it tends to weaken the main story to do that. Please do go ahead and prove me wrong!

  • DGM said,

    I already touched on this with you in e-mail, but since you ask in public I’ll repeat my position here.

    I actually don’t much care about the ratio of mandatory-to-optional content. I enjoyed Morrowind, but I can also enjoy a purely linear JRPG if it’s done well. I guess you could say that, to me, optional content itself is entirely optional.

    My real concern isn’t with how MUCH content is optional, but with what KIND of content is mandatory. I don’t think it’s fair to change the basic rules on the player mid-game without his consent. Any basic type of gameplay mechanic that the player will be required to deal with should be introduced early and used regularly, so the player learns quickly what he’s expected to deal with and what kind of skills he needs to develop to win. Establish these things near the beginning and DON’T pull the rug out from under the player later on. At least, not in the main quest.

    Optional content, on the other hand, is where you as a game designer should feel free to go completely nuts. Break your own rules and offer something completely different if you like – the variety might just keep the player hooked if he starts to get bored with the main quest. Just leave him free to opt out if he doesn’t like it.

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    My favorite CYOA book as a kid was one from the Car Wars series. I used to be intrigued by the way an obviously linear story played out so differently between read-throughs. So one day I grabbed pen and paper and graphed its structure. Guess what I found.

    Easy: the story branched into parallel (and mutually exclusive) paths right after start, then converged again into a checkpoint, then branched again, converged again… and so on until the end. That way, no player was going to see all the paths in one play-through… but every little path was virtually guaranteed to be visited by some of the players, or even the same player at different times — the replayability value was enormous.

    As the saying goes, there are only solutions.

  • Mart said,

    I’m not really bothered by the whole side-quest to main-quest ratio. But I do love RPGs who let the PC roam the lands when the main quest is done, free to complete the unfinished side quests. One thing that bothered me about Baldur’s Gate 2 is that sometimes side quests are gone when you transition to the next chapter. Although it could be central to the overall plot, losing being able to attempt those quests kinda bothered me a bit.

    I like RPGs that show the side quests having some sort of impact, small or large, on the main quest. I’m not just talking about gaining more experience or levels that allow the main quest to be easier, but providing extra options as to how to complete the main quest when some side quests are done.

  • adorna said,

    as a gamer, I like having a strong main quest and small optional sidequests. The perfect balance for me was FF: Crisis Core with all the optional quests being accessible from the savepoints.
    If there is lots of optional content I always feel like I’m missing crucial parts of the game and then I go and find myself in the middle of a fetch-quest-dynasty-of-horrors and completely loose sight of the main quest, sometimes even giving up without completing the game.
    I feel like a questaholic trying to break free:)

    I love DGM’s idea about going nuts in the sidequests, though. Usually, players (I at least) do side quests when they need a break from the main storyline and mechanics – so it would really be nice to do something different then, not more of the same. And even though programmers like dungeon masters seem to think they have to trick players to do things right: please give the player (me) a chance to know what they get into. If you have an ingame tutorial – perhaps give a hint that certain things are optional. Give a hint of the scope of the sidequest sometimes, maybe I’m strange but I like it when a game is nice to me instead of evil 🙂

  • Kimari said,

    Personally, I’m a player-agency nut, so I’d say at least make 50% of the game optional. But then again, I’m basing that number on how *I* would design the game’s pacing and difficulty (or at least try to).

    Let me explain my reasoning a little further:

    Basically, I’d go for a main quest line that can be powered through with little to no sidequest dabblings. It’s not particularly *easy* to do, since the player would have to know what tactics to use in each major battle, but it can be done.
    Then the sidequests would consist of 30% content designed to let the player level-up so they can power through the main quests, while the other 20% is there primarily to provide a challenge for those players that either love a challenge or are revisitng old content just for the sake of exploring.

    In my opinion this basic (and a little vague) design has some virtues that I’m always looking for:

    * Choice: Letting the player choose is always a good thing in my book.
    * Replayability: Since the main quest line is only half of the game, it encourages players to play through a second time. A new game+ feature wouldn’t hurt either.
    * Tailored difficulty: You want it easy? Just grind a little. You want it impossibly difficult? Try some of the harder sidequests.

    Though the major problem with this design is that you’d have to make it abundantly clear which sidequests are easy and which ones are harder than counting your hairs while wearing boxing gloves.

    (I do realize that I’m playing the part of backseat game designer here, I just wanted to share my 2 cents) 🙂