Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Can RPGs Be Easy to Learn Without Being “Dumbed Down?”

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 20, 2011

I feel a little hypocritical after my (day-job related) business trip to Asia. I loaded up my computer with some really serious RPGs – probably way too many – as entertainment. I had some other game types, too, but I filled my hard drive with a good subsecti0n of my “unplayed RPGs” library. I figured I might get into one or two. That didn’t really happen.

I did spend some serious time doing game development, especially after the first week and I’d made my peace with jet lag and my work schedule. So I wasn’t totally slacking off. But the massive RPG love-fest I anticipated didn’t really happen. I gave it a decent try, but I don’t think I put more than three or four hours into serious RPG playing.

This actually caused me some concern. Was I just getting burned out after spending the better part of the last five years *making* a game inspired by the old-school sensibilities, and now I just wanted to play some hack-and-slash action RPG or real-time strategy game?

Maybe that was part of it. I think a little bit of burnout probably enhanced my lethargy, but really I was experiencing the fundamental problem from which modern RPGs have been “saving” us for the last decade or so… these older games require too much work up front to learn the game system before they become fun. I mentioned a few months ago how frustrated I was with Might & Magic 1 until I actually took the time to study the manual. And then I started having a blast playing it. That initial outlay of time can be even more significant for some other games. I found myself wanting to retreat to easier, or at least more familiar, territory – like re-playing an old favorite.

(I think a small part of the problem was that I have some games in progress back home, and I felt a little reluctant to start a new game that I didn’t think I’d finish before returning home and having Yet Another Half-Finished game on my hard drives…)

It’s a fundamental issue. Games should be easy (and fun) to learn. If you aren’t having fun in the first five minutes, something is wrong. I give RPGs a little more leeway, but maybe I shouldn’t. This is a problem, especially if you have a game system that has a lot of mechanical depth – which I have always enjoyed. In fact, some of my favorite strategy games are the ones in which I learn new tricks and expose new layers of depth every time I play. This is good game design – to create a game that’s playable and fun without having to understand all the details, but which rewards continued play and exploration with ever greater depth (and more skills to master to improve play).

Unfortunately, the industry’s answer to this quandary has not been satisfactory, in my mind:

#1 – Tutorials. Tutorials usually suck and are generally not much fun. They feel like hand-holding, often because they are so tightly scripted, and I often find myself looking forward to being “allowed to play the game” once the tutorial section is over. That’s wrong. We should be playing from the get-go.

#2 – Eliminate Complexity. This is too often the other approach – to “dumb down” games so that there’s not nearly so much to learn. I will admit that depth doesn’t have to be the same thing as complexity, but this streamlining effort often throws out the baby with the bathwater.

#3 – Clone Familiar Gameplay. Game developers are making RPGs play “just like” popular action games, so veteran gamers don’t have to learn much new to get into the game. To me, this feels like RPGs are losing their distinctiveness and becoming just a minor variation on action games. I have nothing against action games – don’t get me wrong – but I play them for a different reason than I play RPGs.

There have got to be better approaches to the problem than this. While this isn’t exactly the same as “dumbing down” the genre, I’d say “watering down” is an appropriate description.

Another issue I think most of us “older gamers” have to deal with is limited time to play games. We love games, but we have to get our gaming in small segments than we could as kids. I find myself going back regularly to a game of Slay, simply because I can play a complete game in fifteen minutes.  My gaming time is usually in segments no longer than an hour, often less than forty-five minutes. If that experience ends with my having made little or no progress – due to dying and restarting, or simply wandering around talking to people trying to remember where I’d left off last time I played, or whatever – then I’m a lot less excited to double-click the icon again when I find myself in need of a gaming fix.

Again, the typical industry answer to this problem is hand-holding and linearity. Although the earlier love affair with fixed save points runs directly counter to this, and I find the inability to save and exit abhorrent in a PC game. But a decent “quest journal” and other goal suggestions can help here, without requiring an on-screen icon that tells the player to “walk here.”

So we have several potentially conflicting goals here:

* A good RPG should be easy to learn, and “playable” (and fun) without fully learning the system within the first few minutes of play.

* A good RPG should grab the player within the first fifteen minutes with drama and excitement, and the player should actually be able to “play” the game in that time (rather than stepping through a tutorial).

* A good RPG should have plenty of depth for the player to explore and master as the game progresses, once they’ve mastered the basics.  It shouldn’t be “dumbed down” and simply repeat the basics for a couple dozen hours.

* An RPG player should be able to make measurable progress in short game sessions (15 – 30 minutes, ideally) even if they don’t have a clear recollection of where they last left off.

* A good RPG should not be excessively linear, and should allow plenty of freedom for the player to attempt (and succeed) in achieving goals with different approaches, nor should it hold the player’s hand to guide them to a “preferred” solution unless explicitly requested by the player (through difficulty level or whatnot).

I cannot claim some kind of miracle approach that resolves all of these goals simultaneously – and I’d probably reject any claim of a “one true approach” that did so out-of-hand. And I think for most of these points, you could replace “An RPG” with “A Game” and they would hold equally true.

But these are good things to think about, both as a player and game designer.  RPGs have a reputation for being hard to get into and play, which is why modern RPG developers do all kinds of genre-distorting contortions to overcome that legacy. I can’t really say I blame them, and I can’t argue with the fact that Bethesda appears to have hit the mother lode with Skyrim with something that appears from my vantage point to have only a passing resemblance to an RPG. Their approach works, I enjoy these games, so it’s one solution. But I think there are others. This lightly-explored territory is a place that other RPG developers that aren’t named Bethesda or Bioware should definitely explore.

In the meantime, I have a couple of games to develop and a crapload of half-finished games to finish on my desktop now that I’m home. 🙂

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 13 Comments to Read

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    I think we can safely look towards classic boardgames for inspiration. Go is famous for having extremely simple rules, yet one can spend a lifetime learning it. Tellingly, the more complex rules of chess offer more breadth, but pre-teens routinely become international masters.

    Interactive fiction authors have also discovered the advantage of the few-rules-many-combinations approach. Too many overly specific rules are harder to develop and end up clashing with each other. The opposite is called a simulationist approach, and has produced some very interesting titles.

    The problem is, of course, that simulation can also lead to unexpected interactions, some of which can be considered cheating, or at least unbalancing, and there’s an irrational fear of such things nowadays. Never mind that you can’t actually “cheat” in single-player games — you can only play the game in unconventional ways. But more and more games are multiplayer, and that’s a real issue.

    As for the story side of the equation, that’s another can of worms. Recent guest posts here have touched on some of the issues.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, that was exactly what was on my mind when I noted the difference between complexity and depth. They can be directly related, but it’s not directly proportional or even prerequisite. But in the desire to eliminate the former, the latter is often sacrificed as well.

    One issue is that RPGs are often simulationist in approach – that’s sort of the whole genesis of the genre. So if things get too simple, players will complain about how “gamey” and artificial the rules feel. So it’s a challenging balance.

  • slenkar said,

    Im tryin gto play bards tale now but I have to break out the graph paper, copy protection and spell list so its a big chore. I hardly ever play it as a consequence.

  • Corwin said,

    I think games which begin with your character at a low level with very few skills work because you have that initial simplicity. As you learn the game and your character levels, you can slowly add more depth and complexity. I should think that this also makes it easier to balance a game. Still, any game where you MUST read the manual first can’t be all bad!! 🙂

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    There are two things which I think would help almost any game to be a bit more accessible and easy for newcomers:

    The point-and-click, mouse-based interface is probably one of the best things to make a game easy to learn. You can have plenty of easy keyboard shortcuts, but anyone who has used Windows (or similar OS) knows about clicking on something to interact with it.

    I’m also a big fan of having all the manual information within the game itself. This is especially helpful in these days of digital downloads and where even a boxed game will probably not have a paper manual. Nobody wants to exit a game to find out basic information.

    Of course without an engaging plot, good gameplay and so on the interface and manual are of little consequence.

    I suppose a good example would be Ultima VII, which did a lot of things right. It began with a non-combat starting area, allowing you to get used to the interface and how the game world worked. It also introduced the overall plot and characters.

  • Timo Naskali said,

    I thought Fallout: New Vegas handled tutorials really well. It uses text pop-ups to explain the various systems the game has, but brilliantly only shows them at appropriate times as reaction to the player’s actions. Like the game only teaches you about the disguise system when you first equip a disguise, only teaches you about the faction reputation system when you first gain fame with one, and so on. This way you don’t get overwhelmed with information early on and it doesn’t feel like hand-holding, but you still get all the information you need when you need it.

    But the game did sink down to irritating hand-holding by continuing the legacy of the dreaded quest arrow. Damn you, Oblivion!

  • Greg said,

    Hmm. I wonder if games have to be easy and fun in the first 5 minutes?

    I do think that to “sell” and have a chance for mass appeal this is probably the case in order to grab attention quickly. However, being complicated and a little hard to get into can be very rewarding.

    There was a board game (Russian Campaign I believe was the name) that was very difficult to get into and took a couple of days to play out a scenario with somebody. But, after getting into it, it was a blast. All it took was some convincing by somebody who already had jumped the ‘learning curve’ and a great weekend would be had tearing across Europe over bowls of green chili.

    I do “get it” when people talk of having too many hurdles to get over (e.g. the Bard’s Tale comment above) and don’t like reading an ‘external manual’ but I do think there is some risk of ‘dumbing all the fun out of a game’. There was a great deal of work put in external manuals ‘back in the day’ and I loved getting into some of those almost as much as the game in some cases — looking forward to what was ahead of me. (I do like the idea of ‘in game manuals’ though).

    Perhaps it’s not how hard a game is to get into but why the game is hard to get into? If the learning-curve is integral to being more adept at the game itself maybe it’s a good thing. However, if it’s tedium to deal with logistics (copy protection, poor manual, perhaps graph paper mapping) in order to even be able to get to the game then it’s a drag.

    Who knows… I guess if it’s fun it’s fun 🙂

  • Can A Good RPG Avoid Being "Dumbed Down"? | Ultima Aiera said,

    […] Games’ Jay Barnson poses a difficult question: can game developers make it easy to learn an RPGs systems and controls without dumbing the game […]

  • Infinitron said,

    Why does something have to be easy to learn to be fun? What happened to the days of our youth when we’d button mash until the wee hours of the night, failing again and again, and enjoying every minute of it?

  • Automata said,

    Infinitron: Did you read the article? It’s because some people *don’t* have the same free time and lack of responsibilities that we have in our youth to “button mash until the wee hours of the night” that there’s the problem.

    Failure is fine; but if you don’t have enough time to get back into the game to fail, then what enjoyment is there to be had in either success or failure?

  • Infinitron said,

    But you can say that about anything. There are tons of people out there who wish they had more time to play sports or go to nightclubs.
    There’s nothing special about having no time to play games, other than the fact that it’s a bit frustrating having a computer around you at all times and not being able to use it for gaming.
    Welcome to adult life, I guess.

  • Giuaz said,

    Rampant Coyote: You’re jumping to conclusions on why someone would play a CRPG (people at the RPG Codex are getting mad, if that matters).

    Anyway, just wanted to say you should do some reading at The Critical-Gaming Network. The author of that blog has quite a bit of information to help give you a new, different perspective on game design.

    Hope this helps and that you will right an addendum to your article here.

  • DraQ said,

    I think one of the main problems cRPGs needlessly inherited from PnP is that their rules are very abstract. You have stuff like damage and HPs, and armour class, nad to hit rolls and all kind of stuff that isn’t actually very complex but piles up and takes some time and attention to learn.

    The solution I’d like to see is to actually make cRPGs more complex, but also more intuitive, by mimicking the way real world works.
    You’d still have stats to parametrize characters’ abilities, but in real life you don’t ask what armour class a helm has – you look at its shape, openings it has, its thickness and materials it’s made of. Openings affect both user’s perception and vulnerability, but the thing is you don’t need to calculate how exactly and put calculated results in tables. Current physical engines allow for calculating collision between complex shaped objects (especially rigid bodies), can use parametrized materials to determine if something breaks when its struck by something else, even momentum transfer depending on angle of attack. Yet, they are mostly used for simulating corpses falling.

    Why not make character out of “flesh” material, put hitboxes inside representing critical hit volumes, develop some partially random damage system for living beings, soften it up with magic/heroism/whatever to not make it Robinson’s Requiem Redeux, then simply put armour pieces with their own material over character and rely on physical engine’s own physics simulation and collision detection?
    Yes it’s actually far more complex and a lot of work, but the benefit will be that instead of saying that the character in plate armour shot by an expert archer died because the archer had so and so modifier for to hit rolls and critical chance, while the defender’s AC was so and and he got critted for so and so damage bypassing his damage reduction which killed him, we will say that the expert archer (firing arrows with spread that can be assessed visually as really small) hit the guy in plate straight in the visor, sending an arrow through his brain and (understandably) killing him.

    You don’t need to be an RPG nerd to understand that.