Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Over-Streamlining the CRPG?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 15, 2011

I was nodding along in general agreement (or maybe it was just sympathy) with indie game developer Lars Doucet up until the point where he tried to call a tower defense game an RPG. But I have to admit, in spite of my immediate “WTF?” reaction, the game does sound really fun. We’ll have to see if Defender’s Quest ends up feeling like a “real” RPG when it’s done, or just a TD game with RPG elements.

But he points out a few weaknesses common in most RPGs that I thought were worthy of note, so I recommend reading the article.  I may not entirely agree with all of them, but they do sum up a lot of the perceived problems. Big empty areas and lots of time wasted wandering from point A to point B. Random, meaningless fights.  Stuff like that.

A lot of these come down to a question of abstraction. You can get rid of all of the ‘dead space” and boring parts of a town by converting it to nothing more than some nested menu. Does this make a superior game? If so, then we hit our evolutionary peak around Wizardry I – when the town really was nothing more than some text menus – and have been going downhill ever since. For that matter, you can take the entire RPG experience down to an abstraction like Sophie Houlden’s The Linear RPG – which I think is an awesome deconstruction of RPGs, captures a lot of the essential “high level” gameplay, but I think also illustrates that much of the fun comes down to those superfluous details many designers seem to want “streamline” out.

I think what Mr. Doucet is missing here is a key element of RPGs for many of us, and that is exploration. Not just exploration of the geography, but digging into the lore, the characters, the stories, and even the rule system. Some of us occasionally do enjoy trying to figure out the difference between a “+15 Ancient Blue Halberd” and a “+10 Exquisite Rapier of Greater Frostbite.” Though admittedly, those of us who do should probably be kept inside cages at night. But hey, it’s how we roll.

I don’t think I’d disagree with the idea that the combat system is the core of an RPG – although I’m of the opinion that literal combat isn’t absolutely necessary (but I wouldn’t try to make a commercial RPG without it at this point). But it’s definitely where the challenge comes from. And hey, if combat involves playing a TD-style game, or a match-three game, or a card game with opponents, that’s cool. I’m a fan of changing that up and doing something different with it from time to time.

But what an RPG is about, to me, isn’t the fighting. I want the fighting to be fun, of course. It’s critical. But really, combat isn’t what the RPG is about. Think about it for a minute. Is your goal to fight the guards holding the princess, or to rescue the princess? Are you out to get into an epic fight with the evil wizard, or to defeat the evil wizard?

What an RPG is about is these other things – story, exploration, interesting choices, and character improvement. Combat is the most common type of challenge of many that must be overcome to continue on with what the RPG is about. It’s the overcoming of challenges – the conflict – that makes these goals feel worthwhile.  But without all these other things that make an RPG feel like an RPG, all that combat becomes meaningless.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 16 Comments to Read

  • McTeddy said,

    Combat is usually my least favorite part of an RPG. At it’s best, it doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the world and at it’s worst… the game is a grind fest.

    Game’s like Wizardry are still fairly new to me. I joined the party very late, as in the past few years. But between Etrian Odyssey, Bards Tale, Wizardry and Eye of the Beholder… I’ve never felt that I was moving from combat to combat. I was exploring the dungeons… and crap just got in my way.

    Experience Points do not make an RPG… yet that seems to be the general belief now. If we add XP to a game we can call it an RPG though we market it towards shooter fans.

    Let’s look at Gran Turismo. It was a racing game, just like any other racing game. But when you win a race… your Money rating goes up… you unlock cars by paying money… etc. It is literally nothing more than a fancy menu slapped on top of a driving game.

    Yet… it is that menu that makes it feel like so much more. I owned a garage a cars that I have customized. Those races weren’t repetitive… they were my job so that I could buy more cars. GT was my first experience as a professional racer. But as modern stream-liners believe… “It’s just a fancy menu”.

    A game is more than it’s core… it is the sum of its parts.

    Maybe selecting my destination in a menu is mechanically the same as walking to it… but seeing the world as I travel makes it feel expansive and real.

    Is that really such a bad thing?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, that’s my feeling as well.

    I mean, the point I agree with – and I think most would – is that it shouldn’t be boring and repetitive. Indie RPGs and very old RPGs oftentimes have this problem: Big world, nothing much to fill it except random encounters.

    It is a little more challenging with 3D RPGs where visibility and LOD requirements may restrict how close things can be together. But overall, yes, you don’t want to have to go spend too much time going in a straight line. And Doucet does seem to acknowledge that there’s stuff that can be done to make it cool – his complaint seems to be more leveled at towns that are really nothing but a slow-to-navigate shop menu, and I’d agree so far as that goes.

  • Menigal said,

    Towns can be a really dull part of a game, but that’s more bad design than an inherent problem with the genre. If a town’s just a big, mostly empty place with shops and quest-givers tucked away awkwardly then of course it’s going to be a problem.

    If the stuff you need regularly is easy to get to and the town’s developed like another area to explore, with interesting little tidbits stashed away and real things to do (ie, not half-assed fed-ex quests shoved in as padding), then it’s a real part of the game instead of an awkward menu.

    Take New Vegas. The entire first half of the game I was looking forward to getting there and seeing this big, vibrant city. Once I got there, it was mostly linear, empty stretches of street with a handful of places to visit that required several loading screens to get to.

    That’s not even the worst example. I’m sure we can all think of games where every visit to a shop or inn turned into a cross-city expedition.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    I found myself disagreeing with a lot of the article. The turn-based nature of a lot of RPGs isn’t merely because of machine limitations, but because it leads to a different type of gameplay. I really enjoy taking time to figure out what a good move is during combat in a turn-based RPG. Compare this with real-time games, where your decisions tend to be directed more by what you can do in a short amount of time rather than what makes the best sense. You can best see this in “real time strategy” (RTS) games where the prime measurement at the highly competitive levels is “actions per minute”.

    Not to say that having a tower defense type game for RPG combat isn’t interesting or appealing, but to try to paint it as the bold new future of RPGs sounds more like marketing than good game design.

  • trudodyr said,

    Frankly, I’d rather have the level of abstraction of Wizardry or Dragon Quest than the convoluted idea of a stream of enemies just flowing by my heroes on a seemingly arbitrary path.
    And I am a fan of TD games! It’s just that the idea of trying to sell this as the ‘core of cRPGs’ is distinctly alien to me.
    I also agree wholeheartedly that the notions of exploration and character developments are sadly missing from this analysis. Also, I don’t think I’d like a game that’s trying to appeal to three different crowds at once. Still, best of luck to Defender’s Quest.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    The one thing about RPGs I always appreciated was the focus on character skill, rather than player skill. If I had to choose what separates an RPG from other games, it would be that.

  • Tom Wilson said,

    I realized a couple of years ago that I don’t even like games per se; I like the experience of being in another world and seeing what’s around the next corner. So I don’t really care about the latest platformer with the interesting physics. I certainly don’t care about Match 3 or even Tower Defense. On the other hand, I will play any RPG, RTS or FPS that provides an interesting experience of a different place and time, even if the core game mechanics aren’t that attractive to me.

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    Re: streamlining, you know the saying: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” I don’t know about CRPGs, but in interactive fiction that translates to making almost every room serve a purpose, be it to create mood, host a puzzle or whatever. A few empty corridors are fine, and sometimes you’ll find transitional locations that only serve to underscore the sheer size of a place, but for the most part the rule is that if nothing happens there, you should probably cut it out and simplify the map. After all, you’re making a game, not an architectural simulation.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I largely agreed with the article and his points on RPGs, except I don’t think the central premise is necessarily combat, and I personally don’t like the look of Defender’s Quest – though I don’t like TD games in general.

    I can see the key element of RPG’s being exploration – be it the environment or characters themselves. However, I will add a big caveat here – I like exploring NEW places, not dungeon tileset number four, with nothing but a new piece of armor or “money by another name” at the end.

    Older RPGs suffered in the exploration department because lack of graphics made every location feel the same, but were able to offset that by having an ungodly number of locations (because they were fast and cheap to make) and unique text descriptions. Newer RPGs can suffer because the locations LITERALLY look the same, but they can’t make too many unique locations because it costs a lot of money to make AAA graphics, and you can’t make unique “off the beaten path” places to discover and explore for that reason too. If you are going to pay an artist or multiple artists to create a vibrant and unique environment players would want to explore you aren’t going to make that some optional dungeon in the hills, but a part of the main quest path, because we artists don’t come cheap by the hour. Programmers and designers aren’t cheap either.

    This brings me to the fact that a lot of RPGs suffer because of trying to cram in too much filler. You can re-use all those dungeon sets and have the player trudge through 10 versions of each one, or you can make one dungeon of each, packed with excitement and meaningful fights, encounters, and plot.

    It is odd, but now in my adulthood, the “60+ hours” advertising on the back of an RPG box is a strike against the game. In my younger days I had time to sit and slog through a game with hundreds of random fights, dungeon diversions, and twenty ass-pull plot twists to extend the story a few more hours. Now, I much prefer a denser, more meaningful experience. And by God, an RPG designer or writer should be able to tell an awesome story in 20 hours or less – that’s a TV season or 10 movies worth of time! Even Homer could only make so much random crap happen to Odysseus before he got the guy home.

    I’ve been playing Dragon Age 2 recently. Like Mass Effect 2, Bioware streamlined the hell out of it. Streamlined inventory – no more managing armor for companions. Making quests occur in many of the same locations. Compressing skill trees from the first game, making individual stats cover more ground instead of being unique. Increasing the speed of combat. Removing the need for dozens of unique items. Making character creation more like Mass Effect. Compressing dialogue trees down to Mass Effect style “intent” wheels. Etc. Etc.

    By rights, I didn’t expect to like many of their changes. But you know what? I love the hell out of every streamlined choice they made. This is coming from someone who played the SSI Gold Box games for weeks on end, too. I used to have to look up location descriptions in pamphlet books that came with the games to play the suckers, so I like to feel like I have some old-school RPG cred. But, tt is like Felix so perfectly stated, the old engineer’s creed “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Where that line lays is a matter of debate, but it comes down to what was talked about it the article – choices are only good or worthwhile if they are INTERESTING choices.

    Whether my party goes to the Icy Caverns of Death or the Frozen Caves of Doom is not an interesting choice. They are both just cold holes in the ground – just give me one or the other, don’t make me pick or make me go to both of them.

    I find the streamlining of the combat system in Dragon Age 2 particularly interesting to take note of. I hated the combat in Dragon Age Origins. I played through on Normal the first time and though (ostensibly) Origins had more tactical choices in battle, I rarely used them, because I found combat boring, frustrating, or just something to slog through to get to the next story bit. In Dragon Age 2, it is more visceral, faster, easier, and just, well, more fun. Ironically, as a result of this, I use more tactics and tactical options than I ever did in Origins – because I enjoy combat as an activity in itself. So “streamlining” combat actually added more depth to combat in the sequel for me.


    It occurred to me as I was playing Dragon Age 2 that video game RPGs are becoming more and more like pen and paper Dungeons and Dragons. All the “streamlining” is really just stuff a good DM would do if he or she were running a game around the tabletop. No DM that wasn’t insane would describe the trip across the countryside to the dungeon blow-by-blow, detail by little detail. They only describe what is important, or pick up with the party arriving at the actual location.

    If the party is going into town to buy supplies, the DM only gives description enough to set the mood, or again, bring up important details. He doesn’t say, “You turn left into a long alley filled with barrels and crates. You walk 200 paces and turn right into an identical alley . . . . you turn into another alley, identical to the others, but the barrels and crates are stacked differently – you walk another 200 paces . . . .” (unless the fact that everything is identical and boring is some kind of plot point)He would be lynched at the table. In effect when in a town, players are selecting from a menu given by the DM and jumping to each location, just like in Dragon Age. Like a modern game, or a good novelist, good DMs used economy of detail – they didn’t describe a peasant’s house you were passing unless it was important – for either the plot, mood, or setting. And even if for mood or setting, they sure as hell didn’t describe every hovel the party would be walking past on their way to the tavern.

    Just like a movie doesn’t show me the drive down the freeway the protagonist made to get to his contact on the other side of town, instead cutting to that next scene, I don’t need to see my character walk back down the mountain or walk across town to visit the next urgent plot point I was just told about.

    Also, RPG players bemoan the loss of having total control over their party members and those companions’ equipment. But the more independent and free minded – with their own back stories and attitudes – companions in a party are, the more it is like playing D&D with friends around the table. We certainly didn’t get to “spec” our buddies characters – just decide whether or not we wanted to work with them. These are the companions we are going to be with for the entire game – why not have them fleshed out and interesting and interacting with you in surprising ways that you aren’t controlling? Playing off other personalities, whether controlled by your friends or designed by a developer, is the best way to roleplay and define your own character. That is where the interesting choices come in. Far more interesting to have to decide whether to trust a companion or how to react when betrayed or saved by them than to be able to micromanage their wardrobe and everything they do.

    So, I’m going to be controversial here and state that the “streamlining” of PC RPGs is taking the genre more closely back to its roots – not farther away. Too long have PC RPGs been “bad Dungeon Masters”.

  • Menigal said,

    Some interesting points, LateWhiteRabbit, and I can see the theory behind them. I can’t really agree, but I think that’s coming down the difference about where the “too simple” line is.

    What is too simple? Do we need skills for swords, daggers, axes, bows, crossbows, and fists? How about blades, ranged, and unarmed? How about just attack? Lose too many options in the name of “steamlining” and you lose variety and any sense of individuality.

    Interesting that you say CRGPs have been bad DMs. I’d say they’re becoming worse DMs as we move along. Lots of railroading, scene-hogging NPCs, and being forced to play your PC the way they want you to, with an occasional break to play Bop-It to see if you pick that lock. Essentially, you get to play through someone else’s unpublishable novel as their character, but you get to pick their eye color! Oooh! :p

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I don’t know that we’re that far off in opinions.

    Approach one: Streamline the game, and “Skip to the exciting parts.”

    Approach two: Fix the “boring parts” so that they are also exciting.

    Approach two is the harder one to tackle. I have some ideas on how it can be done, but it’s a mountain of work. But there’s also a spectrum of opportunity between them – from the worst of both worlds to the best of the two.

  • Xenovore said,

    A TD RPG is the panacea for all RPG ills? Really? Really???

    @ Rampant Coyote: Part of the problem with approach #2 is that different people find different things to be interesting or boring.

    Case in point: I’m still playing Farcry 2 after 2 completions because it’s still interesting to me. Other people haven’t played Farcry 2 for more than 10 minutes before getting bored with it.

    So approach #2 is definitely harder, and will probably never pay off 100%. But I’d rather see that than the incessant dumbing-down of RPGs in the name of “streamlining”.

  • This Week In Video Game Criticism: Crafting Identity And Directing Action In Virtual Worlds | Comunità online gaming community said,

    […] at indie tower defence game Defender’s Quest and what happens when you possibly end up ‘Over streamlining the CRPG‘. Troy Goodfellow at the Flash of Steel blog is back and has picked up his series on […]

  • Heart Notes said,

    You need to go play Elona Shooter if you haven’t already.


    It’s an extremely-active, active gameplay, shooter RPG. It will kick your ass the first 10 times, but believe me, it’s one of the few FUN rpgs I’ve played lately, it’s free and it’s Flash. You can’t beat that.

  • Lars Doucet said,

    Hey! Really interesting discussion and good points by all.

    I’ll say a few things –

    1) By leaving out equivocating language in the article, I think I gave the impression that I’m trying to “fix” CRPG’s once and for all.
    See this follow-up post:

    Basically, I’m not the Messiah of RPG design and this is just our specific approach to things. Whether we succeed or not will be yours to judge when the game is released 🙂

    2) The point on exploration is great – I know for sure that that’s one thing I love about RPG’s. When it comes to designing indie games, however, you have to pick a focus area, so we decided to focus on redesigning combat. We simply don’t have the resources to make a super epic RPG crammed with millions of features. (If the first game is successful, however, we’d definitely like to flesh it out with more of these features)

    I will say that overworlds and towns are not NECESSARILY bad things. When they are fleshed out and interesting and real, they are valuable attractions in and of themselves. But when they’re just kind of thrown in there out of obligation, like I said, they’re just bad menus. I say – do it all the way, or keep it simple.

    Given very simple towns and a streamlined overworld,the game is more of a “tactics” RPG, like FF Tactics or Bahamut Lagoon, where you go from one mission to another with story tying it all together. That being said, we’re not nearly as restrictive as those games where you’re shuttled forward and have little to no option to play previous missions.

    Responses to other comments:

    a) The tower defense model we’re implementing is pause-time, not fixed real time. You’ll be able to speed up, slow down, or pause the game at any moment. In tune with our interpretation of RPG’s as the “thinking man’s” game, we wanted success to depend on critical thinking, not reflexes. As long as you have enough energy, you can do any actions in pause time that you can in run-time.

    b) Tower defense is not the be-all, end-all answer to “fixing” CRPG’s. It’s an experiment we’re trying, and we feel that it can solve many of the problems that the standard combat model has 😉

    c) We definitely are proponents of cutting out the fluff. The experiment we’re trying here is to refactor the battle system of RPG’s so they’re more interesting, add an interesting story with colorful characters, make sure there’s plenty of customization, and see what happens. Depending on how hardcore you want to be, the game’s length can expand as you try to beat every level on crazy mode and get a “perfect”, or it can be a really short and sweet experience if you’re willing to settle for a “pass” on normal mode. This way achievers can have their achievements, and people who are mostly just there for the story and the experience can play through fairly quickly.

    In summary:

    Our focus in this game is on two things: gameplay, and story. We’ve limited the breadth of game systems, so things like the overworld and towns will be pretty simple. We hope to have a deep battle system, and an engaging narrative. Everything else we streamline or cut. If it works out, we’ll have a dense little RPG experience for a low price that I hope you all will enjoy 🙂

    Also – you all have a lot of thoughtful things to say. If any of you want to write a review of the game before it comes out and tell everyone exactly why you think it’s great or awful, drop me a line and I’ll see about hooking you up with a free review copy.

    Thanks so much for the feedback! As RPG fans you guys represent the audience we’re trying to reach, so we really appreciate what you think.

    Lars Doucet
    Defender’s Quest Team

  • Lars Doucet said,

    Also, regarding the distinction between a “+15 Ancient Blue Halberd” and a “+10 Exquisite Rapier of Greater Frostbite.”

    I go into further detail about that one in my article about equipment and upgrades:


    Essentially, equipment with multiple variables like that can be interesting (when done correctly) when your party is very small. That’s because you only have a few characters to equip, and picking A or B is an interesting decision – if one sword was strictly better, it wouldn’t be interesting.

    That situation entirely reverses when you have something like 36 characters (a small army). At this point, the question isn’t “which equipment is best” but rather, “where do I put the best equipment”, etc.

    Even in games with small parties, the equipment still feels generic despite the multiple variables and interesting doodads, because you come across new stuff so quickly. The +15 Ancient Blue Halberd is more interesting if I know it won’t shortly be made obsolete by a +16 Legendary Red Halberd.

    And of course, if you have a game with a lot of characters (as we do), it becomes necessary to reserve “speaking roles” to just a few of them, or else character development and interaction gets diluted.