Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Guest Post: The Case for Choice in Character Development Systems

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 13, 2011

Today’s guest post is the first of a three-parter by Colter Cookson. I’ll include the bio at the end of part 3, but he’s tackling the character creation aspect of CRPGs with a bit of a vengeance. I’ll let you read the rest. Thanks Colter!

I have a confession to make: I’ve lost sleep over Baldur’s Gate II.

Among this crowd, that may not be much of a confession. But when I stay up, it’s not because I’m fireballing orcs, banishing shadows, or torching trolls. Instead, I’m tossing and turning in bed as I try to answer an unanswerable question: What class should I be? Will I be a mage who can put entire armies to sleep, a thief who can slay the toughest foes with a well-timed backstab, or a skald, whose battle hymns can turn his allies into whirling death machines?

At the mature age of 25, I would like to say I’m above debates over the nature of my virtual avatar. But although I’ve got more responsibilities now than I did when I first discovered role-playing games, I still enjoy weighing my options. Every time I pick up games like Baldur’s Gate II, Wizardry 8, or Final Fantasy Tactics, I’m almost immediately tempted to restart so I can try a different class, a different party, or a different job combination.

I suspect I would enjoy these games almost as much if they played like the American Final Fantasy II, where characters grow in predetermined ways. I would still get to watch my characters improve, slay monsters, gather loot, and save the world, so the games would continue to offer a compelling fantasy and positive reinforcement. Since the developers would no longer need to worry about challenging players who made different development choices, the games might also provide a more consistent challenge. So why bother including character development decisions at all?

Those decisions offer at least six benefits. First, they increase the players’ sense of accomplishment. If I beat a game with characters whose strengths and weaknesses are set in stone, I’ve solved the puzzle the developer has put before me using tools that are guaranteed to work. If I beat it with characters I’ve molded, I’ve not only solved a specific set of puzzles but also mastered the mechanics behind the game enough to craft my own tools. That makes victory even sweeter.

Second, character development decisions give people a reason to think about the game when they aren’t playing. For players with few other low-stress mental activities, that can make water breaks at work much more refreshing.

Third, character development decisions provide an excuse to talk about the game. For me, this significantly increases a game’s longevity by allowing it to provide a broader range of experiences. When I want to relax, I can read strategy guides and forum posts about the merits of different character designs. When I want to interact with others, I can discuss my experiences. And when I want to feel useful, I can write guides or answer peoples’ questions. This is true for all games, but a well-crafted character development system–one where several character development paths are equally compelling–can extend the discussion by providing fuel for legitimate and irresolvable differences in opinion.

Fourth, character development decisions give people a reason to replay the game by providing a way to vary the experience. A party of two fighters, a mage, and a priest will require slightly different tactics than a party with two wizards, one fighter, and one priest and much different tactics than a party with three wizards and a cleric, so players can revisit the game without feeling like they’ve seen everything before. For money-conscious players, this increases the game’s value. For every player, it can provide an opportunity to see how much their skills have improved by pitting them against challenges they once found difficult but now find easy. Players might also discover secrets they missed the first time, notice the nuances and foreshadowing in the game’s dialogue, or otherwise more fully appreciate the developer’s work.

Fifth, character development decisions broaden a game’s appeal by allowing players to enact different fantasies. I like to play games where careful planning and mental might can overcome even the toughest adversaries, so I avoid ones where the only hero is a buff barbarian but love ones like Diablo II, where it’s possible to play a sorceress or an assassin. Meanwhile, my zombie-obsessed friends can play a necromancer and my religious friend can play a paladin.

Finally, character development decisions allow people to adjust the game to their strengths or preferences. As someone with slow reflexes and poor hand-eye coordination, I loved the Diablo II sorceress’ ice spells because they allowed me to slow enemies enough I could target them reliably. More skilled or impatient gamers could focus on fire magic, which deals more damage. A few might even pick a class they consider weak or complex to give themselves a challenge.

The many forums and guides dedicated to competitive first-person shooters, the countless YouTube videos showing Minecraft masterpieces, and the long lines that once formed before Pac-Man machines are proof that a game can appeal to a broad audience without a character development system. However, for the right type of player–someone that enjoys molding characters and seeing them grow–a character development system that offers significant choices can turn an otherwise unappealing game into a must buy.

I am one of those players. I like character development so much that I tried tower defense games, a genre I’d previously ignored, the instant I discovered Defender’s Quest, which uses ever-improving characters in place of buildings or generic troops. Character development also explains why I love Warlords, Age of Wonders, and Heroes of Might and Magic, which all include leveling heroes, far more than other turn-based strategy games.

From the success of these series, I doubt I’m alone. Designers who take the time to craft character development systems that provide at least some of the benefits above-and more than likely others I’m unaware of-will greatly increase their game’s potential market.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I do love a good character creation. The best ones give you choice, but also make that choice have a real impact on the world you’re sending your avatar into.

    I generally make magic-using characters these days, which is probably thanks to the Quest for Glory games, and the Ultima series.

    In Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights in particular, I choose the Sorcerer class (requires modding for BG1, I tend to use Baldur’s Gate Trilogy). It’s probably because at high levels it’s overpowered, but I do like it.

    The best character creations I’ve ever seen though were for Megatraveller and Darklands, two games which I’ve spent longer on the creation than I have in the games proper!

    I always liked the idea that your hero had a life beforehand where they gained their skills, and then decided to live a life of adventure. In creating your character you also create your backstory.

  • Colter Cookson said,

    Thanks for the comment.

    When you say a character development should “have a real impact on the world you’re sending your avatar into,” what do you mean?

    I tend to play mages and thieves. For me, that has less to do with their power and more to do with the fantasy they represent. As I say in the post, it’s fun for me to imagine that someone with intelligence can overcome even the strongest and fastest foe.

    In Baldur’s Gate, I lean towards thieves. I like them better than mages because their attacks are more reliable. I never know how many enemies Sleep or Web will take down, but I can generally estimate how much damage my thief will do, especially if I’ve got stats or equipment that make my attacks extremely accurate.

    I haven’t played Megatraveller, but I’ve toyed with the character creation system in Darklands. I found it fun, but I don’t think that sort of system is right for every game. It gives your character a history and introduces you to the setting, but it also makes creating the character you want more difficult than it would be if you were merely allocating points. Sometimes I don’t have the patience for that.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    What I mean is I prefer RPGs where your character creation choices give you a different experience in a game.

    Games like Fallout had this, where there are many different ways to approach the problems/puzzles in the game, and your initial choices have a large impact on this.

    One recent favourite of mine is the Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion Storm of Zehir, which has a more fleshed out overland map (top down view for moving between locations) rather than selecting from a few specific areas. The overland map allowed for a greater use of all the D&D skills which are far less useful in other similar games. For example, a high Spot skill allowed you to see enemies earlier, and a high Move Silently skill would allow you to sneak past them and avoid combat.

    From what I recall of Megatraveller (I never got far in it), if you had a party with the right selections of skills, you could buy your own ship and travel from planet to planet (I think you could travel by other means, but I’m not sure).

    Sometimes such choices are unnecessary, in games that are combat focused your choice essentially boils down to how you want to kill the enemies in your way. In those cases I don’t mind picking a pre-made character and just getting into the action (games like Diablo).

  • Colter Cookson said,

    Thanks for clarifying. I also prefer games where character development choices affect the gameplay. While I don’t need every game to have skills for scouting or social interaction, the ones that have them should ensure they matter.

    From your comments, it sounds like Storm of Zehir did a good job. How is the combat? I remember enjoying the original Neverwinter Nights 2 but often felt the battles were too easy.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I didn’t find the combat too difficult in Storm of Zehir, although there were certain difficulty spikes, but it doesn’t really compare to the likes of Baldur’s Gate 1/2 (Although I hear Icewind Dale has the best combat).

    I preferred it to Mask of the Betrayer, but that probably puts me in a rather small minority. MotB definitely has the better story and characters (it is very character-focused), but the game mechanics of SoZ are more to my taste (and no awful spirit meter!).

  • Colter Cookson said,

    I might have to try Storm of Zehir with a low-magic party or self-imposed restrictions on sleep. That should keep the challenge up.

    I remember enjoying the combat in Icewind Dale I and Icewind Dale II, but I never completed either of them. They’re fun, but they focus on combat at the expense of story.

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