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.
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