Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

On the Ungainliness of CRPG Development

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 18, 2011

Maybe we indie RPG developers will get it right, eventually. As much as I do enjoy the little RPG Maker – created jRPG-style indie RPGs out there, the ones that really thrill me are the big-concept RPGs that hearken back not to the old 16-bit console RPGs of yore, but rather the classics of the PC and other home computers of the late 80’s and early 90’s.

I don’t just want retreads of the old games that I’ve already played, however. I want all new adventures in new worlds that borrow more from the spirit of these old games than their forms. And fortunately, the indies seem to be delivering. For many years, Spiderweb Software was the only game in town for this style of RPG. But now many others – some of which have been a long time in development – are finally appearing. It’s good. But some remain still on the horizon, possibly vaporware in the minds of the niche audience that is aware of these games.

Yes, I’m responsible for one of them.

Another of these games with the highest “vaporware” suspicion level is Cleveland Blakemore’s Grimoire. After the website disappeared once again from the web,  Grimoire has returned – in the form of a blog. With something of a verbal playthrough now that it “beta complete.” I look at how long my game has now been in testing, and I really don’t expect to see this game shipping anytime soon. Especially considering its size. From accounts of the oooold Beta version from many years ago, this is not a short game. Testing it all will no doubt take some serious effort.

Still, it looks very sharp, and inspired by all the right things.  It looks like it could be the epic spiritual sequel to Wizardry 7 and similar titles many of us have been waiting for. For a Long Time. But, considering how “close” it has been to release for the last several years, I think that in all likelihood we may still have a long time yet to wait.

I don’t know Cleve Blakemore, nor am I very familiar with his apparently storied history. But on one level, I can totally sympathize with him. Working on an epic RPG in one’s “part time” is amazingly time-consuming, and it is even more amazing to see how quickly the weeks pass into months. And no matter how much you work on it, how much you tweak, clean, polish, adjust, and re-balance, the RPG is a beast of a genre that will just never, ever, ever be “perfect.” What was once simple and clean becomes complex and unwieldy very easily, and no matter what you do it is never enough.

Steve Taylor, president of Wahoo Studios / NinjaBee, has a favorite quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince:  “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” At least that’s one variation of the quote. I put that up on my wall in my home office.

Apparently it doesn’t do me any good.

I keep hearing mainstream game developers harping on this principle – stripping the RPG down to its barest principles (and, too often I fear, beyond that). But for me, the thrill of this genre is often in its vast scope – the breadth of possibility space.  It is in that illusion that the world is alive and complex and full of possibilities, where the exceptions are the rule. To me, the heart of CRPGs is the opposite of streamlined and simple, though as a player I want it to be packaged that way. I want it to be ridiculously easy to learn and get into, yet unfold into marvelous detail and scope as I play.

As a developer, I still don’t have my head around what it really takes to make this happen. All those layers and systems that interact with each other tangle and coil with each other in a Gordian Knot of a game system. I really do understand the desires of many mainstream guys to simply hack it to pieces with a sword.  RPG systems are often inherently fragile. A powerful weapon with an incorrect price  or two skills that somehow form an unbeatable combo that slipped through testing can throw your entire carefully balanced gameplay out the window.

But put too many safeguards in there to enforce balance and keep the gameplay “clean,” and you lose a big chunk of the charm of the genre. Magic becomes formulaic and mundane, the curious details become window-dressing on a world in stasis, battles become routine, exploration becomes a waste of time, and an epic adventure becomes little more than an exercise treadmill with fancy dialog.

It gets very easy to see why these big-concept hand-crafted indie RPGs have development cycles that stretch into years.

Part of me still says, “Then we must be doing it wrong.”  It shouldn’t be this hard. Shouldn’t — but then I find myself spending two hours just writing dialog that a player will breeze through in two minutes, and I really don’t know.

Filed Under: Indie Evangelism - Comments: 17 Comments to Read

  • Maklak said,

    I for one don’t mind if there is some overpowered combo in a single player game. I’ll probably use it to skip combats faster.

    Other than that I found it surprising when I found out how much code is usually hidden behind a button or menu function.

  • Yoel said,

    In my homebrew tabletop RPG, I’ve taken the approach of stating very plainly that it is not balanced. Some builds will be better for some things than others. A thief will not fight like a warrior, and a wanderer will not fry things like a mage. So I tell people to pick what they would find fun, and if they’re interested in being able to kill stuff the best, I direct them toward a few race-class combos that do that.

  • BellosTheMighty said,

    Well, you got the key right up there. Spiderweb puts out solid games, and does so at a rate of two a year. What are they doing that everyone’s getting wrong? My suspicion is: knowing their limitations. They know they can’t deliver knockout graphics or complex mechanics, so they pare it down and simplify to devote themselves to content.

    On the subject, don’t be harsh on RPGMaker. People produce jRPGs with it because it was designed to produce jRPGs, but at the elemental level there’s not all that much difference between a SNES-era jRPG and an Ultima game from the same era. In fact, I’m pretty sure you could use it to create one. Medium is not married to genre.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Oh, yeah, I’m quite fond of some RPGMaker games. But what makes it work is that those games have enough similarities that a formula and tools could be created. This isn’t to say they can’t deviate from the formula with some coding (they can), or that the formula is unnecessarily restrictive. I mean, a lot of classic western RPGs followed their own formula (w/ variations). A similarity of rules and style doesn’t mean the games all have to play the same. Just as not all action movies are the same. Just the crappy ones. 🙂

    In fact, Ultima III was a major spiritual source for the jRPG formula. It’s changed a lot, but that’s where it came from. (Wizardry helped, too).

    But of course, we designers love to muck with the formula and make out own. Spiderweb did just that, and the number of changes to each game as their games evolved were kept relatively small. They even kept most of the same graphics. That’s part of it. If you can stick with a style / engine / formula as you go, you can create tools to really help in the development. If all your dialogs come from a standard system, you can create a dialog editor to help automate the stuff that is otherwise tedious and prone to human error.

    That’s probably the key. If nothing else, just having a manual *process* down is a major step forward, so that you aren’t reinventing the wheel several times within the same game (as I have too often done… though hopefully not for games 2 and 3!)

  • Barry Brenesal said,

    “As much as I do enjoy the little RPG Maker – created jRPG-style indie RPGs out there, the ones that really thrill me are the big-concept RPGs that hearken back not to the old 16-bit console RPGs of yore, but rather the classics of the PC and other home computers of the late 80′s and early 90′s.”

    Complete agreement. I like big concept games, but ones that offer me a wide range of activities and choices, in a unique and interactive universe. Ultima 7 had that. So did The Magic Candle, and the later Wizardry titles.

    “Another of these games with the highest “vaporware” suspicion level is Cleveland Blakemore’s Grimoire.”

    Earrgh. I checked out Grimoire at two points in its extremely lengthy history. The first time, it was an alpha. The second time, Cleve said it just-on-the-edge-of-gold-code, completely tested. I think two or three very small bugs were found. It was finished.

    But he’s never released the thing. He keeps pulling it back–then a couple of years later he pops up again, saying it’s being bug tested, and will soon be released. Then it’s gone once more. What’s this, the 5th time he’s done that? I have great respect for his coding abilities and what he did in Grimoire, but he seems very, very, very afraid to let it go. Just a guess on my part, but I don’t think he fears feedback. If you’ve ever read a Blakemore rant, you’ll recognize that he can’t take criticism well: a very human and understandable trait. Many of us manage this, through a series of measures. I don’t honestly think Cleve has, which is a shame. He’s really done a fine game–if he can just let it go.

  • Barry Brenesal said,

    Forgot to mention that I actually went through that almost-gold code, myself. Cleve really seemed on the edge of releasing it, for a while.

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    Re: simplicity, the charm of an RPG may be in its complexity, but it’s hard enough to get a simple version working. I’m making a “mere” roguelike right now, and it was a ton of work just to develop a melee combat system with three base attributes. Even as an experienced software developer, it still makes me dizzy to think how much more there is to add before it will feel like a complete game, never mind a complex one.

    So yeah, ambition is good, but I’ll take a small finished game over a big epic promise any time. Maybe that’s just me.

  • Robert said,

    Too bad his blog has closed again due to overwhelmingly negative comments. Take the link to rpgcodex for example, it’s more of a crusade against him then actual feedback. I knew the rpgcodex-forums were a cesspool of filth, but I didn’t it would go to this 4chan-like intent they’ve shown.

  • Davzz said,

    Well, let me put it this way: RPGCodex has seen Grimoire go on for a lot longer than just about anyone else.

    It’s highly unlikely that the blog was anything other than a joke anyway (seriously, he’s using a “special engine” that makes it unable to take screenshots? There’s something called the print screen button and pasting to MS Paint) and using RPGCodex as a scape goat is an extremely common tactic nowdays.

  • Robert said,

    Regardless of how long they’ve seen Grimoire, regardless of the validity of blog or the criticism, it’s no excuse for the asinine comments in that thread. I’ve seen Grimoire mentioned on other sites, negative and positive, but at least respectful.

    I seriously don’t know if Grimoire is vapourware, if he’s trolling or something else, but the level of comments on rpgcodex(and the blog) is rock bottom in my eyes. You might call me humourless, so be it then.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I deliberately avoided reading the thread he cited. That behavior completely mystifies me. I pray that it isn’t because I’m humorless, as I’m making a game centered around humor.

    I admit, I haven’t been anticipating this game for as long as many of those folks. And I’ve played a little of the old beta demo, so I know it is – or at least was – real. And I haven’t actually seen some of the more colorful claims and posts that Blakemore is reputed to have made in the past. Maybe that insulted people? I dunno.

  • Davzz said,

    It’s really hard to say who the “real” Cleve is and what is just his internet persona (not the JRPG).

    The reaction to Cleve seems rude and… well, it is but Cleve, if he really is the real one, basically spends his entire time at RPGCodex speaking like a really badly written villian who just skimmed the works of Nietzsche, espousing a very weird philosophy and basically calling everyone “Netherdals” all the time.

    Really, without heavy moderation, I daresay there’s not many people who would be polite when subjected to that treatment for… what, 15 years?

  • Silent said,

    “That behavior completely mystifies me. (…) And I haven’t actually seen some of the more colorful claims and posts that Blakemore is reputed to have made in the past. Maybe that insulted people? I dunno.”

    There seem to be an anthology available here :


    If anything, skimming through this page puts these reactions in perspective. We can’t check anymore whether these quotes are real, but they explain many attitudes towards Grimoire and his author, and why these aren’t treated with the same respect as everyone.

  • Milkman Dan said,

    I remember some of Cleve’s rants on USENET. Now I’m aware it’s common for people to culture an “internet persona” and that what’s said online shouldn’t always be taken seriously. But years after years of this?

  • Karry said,

    “a favorite quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.””

    Isnt that a saying credited to Micheleangelo ?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I don’t know. I’ve only heard it attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

  • Infinitron said,

    The long-awaited masterpiece of Internet legend Cleve Blakemore is finally coming out, after 17 years!



    Behold its majesty!