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