Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

RPGs, IGF, RTFM, KISS, and How Those Acronyms Can Be Used To Make a Better Game

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 16, 2012

I decided to enter the 2012 Independent Games Festival (IGF) in spite of my general feeling that the chance of Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon becoming a finalist was pretty small (over 560 entries this year!). It’s not that the game is unworthy – not at all.  While I’m obviously biased as the creator, I have some nice independent validation that Frayed Knights rocks for its intended audience.  It’s not perfect, and I’m definitely trying to broaden that market for the sequel, but for my first shot (or maybe the second, if you include the pilot) going into beloved old-school RPG territory, I’m quite happy with it.

That’s why I entered the IGF. It felt wrong not to let the game compete. The list of finalists came out last week,  and as expected, Frayed Knights was not among them. While I had no realistic expectations of that actually happening, I have to admit to being a little disappointed. But as I said, it didn’t seem to be an IGF type of game, and admitted as much when I made the submission, though folks on Twitter and at home asked me what I meant by that and I couldn’t really explain it.

Craig Stern of IndieRPGs.com explains why RPGs don’t play well to the IGF.

He’s guessing, of course, but it feels “right.” It also explains a lot about the winners of previous years. Quite simply, the format of the competition dictates which games will do well. This includes the makeup of the judges, the time period, the number of games, the categories, and so forth. While he goes through many more explanations, my own interpretation breaks it down into the following. Games that have the best chance of success in the IGF are:

  • Short: Judges can play through a reasonable subset of everything the game has to offer in 15 to 30 minutes.
  • Stand Out In Innovative Mechanics or Visuals: This is based on the offered categories.
  • Simple: Judges don’t have time to mess with complicated explanations / manuals (no RTFMing here!). The simpler the mechanics are to understand, the better.
  • Focused in Scope: Likewise, an extremely polished but limited game will do better than a game that has had to ‘spread out’ the quality over a much larger scope.
  • Don’t Emphasize Narrative: Or rather, their narrative elements tend to be revealed visually. Often abstractly.

This explains things much better than my previous vague description: That IGF games were more “artsy-fartsy.” Though I still think that description often holds…

This isn’t really a “fault” of the IGF, and my personal feeling is that any “genre bias” on the part of the IGF is pretty minimal.  It’s simply the structure and reality of a competition, and any other competition would have its own problems. I have read of similar issues with things like the annual Interactive Fiction Competition: By it’s nature, it tends to reward shorter works rather than lengthier. That doesn’t preclude large-format IF titles from winning – they just face more headwind.

The rule with the IGF and similar competitions with limited windows in which judges have to play games is really “K.I.S.S.” This is alternately defined as, “Keep It Short & Simple,” “Keep It Simple, Stupid,” or many variations thereof. But this is something like the arcades of the 1980s – the games that do well are the ones that attract potential buyers from the get-go, are intuitive to play, offer a quick focused experience, and stand out from the competition.

And honestly? Aside from maybe adding an extra category (which would make the awards ceremony even longer), I don’t know if I’d like to see the IGF change to be more accommodating of indie RPGs. If anything – and I know I am treading into heretical territory amongst some old-school RPG purists here and sounding like I’m advocating the approach of modern mainstream RPGs – I think RPGs should look at some of the above criteria as virtues that they should try to embrace a little more.

Should RPGs be shorter? Mmm… maybe. Maybe not. But many could do better about getting to the meat of the game earlier. Simpler? I think simple games appeal to beginners much better, and the judges should be considered beginners. I don’t want every RPG to be a “beginner-level” title, however, and while making a game that appeals to both beginners and veterans to the genres sounds good on paper, doing it right will probably take not much less effort than creating two entirely separate games.

Should RPGs have better/more innovative visuals and/or mechanics? I think RPGs – even those emulating old-school titles – should try to innovate. Admittedly, with the exception of Frayed Knights‘ drama star system, most innovations in this area tend to be a lot lower-key. Maybe it’s something we need to just show off better?  As to better visual presentation… man, that’s a toughie, for exactly the reasons Craig outlined – the breadth of the games makes it impossible to just say, “Work harder at it!”  If a game has 1/20th of your scope and content, it stands to reason the same amount of effort and budget will make it look 20x better. That’s a losing battle from the get-go. But I think there may be some clever work-arounds.

No matter what, an indie RPG should stand out (in a good way) from not only its current indie competition, but any old-school titles that serve as inspiration. Because really – if I can play the original for $5.99 from GOG.COM, Gamer’s Gate, or Steam, why would I want to play your indie title that seems to be doing little more than aping the gameplay and style? The original is probably better. No, your indie title has to offer a unique experience and stand on its own in some way. I should want to play your game because it offers something I can’t get anywhere else. And dang it, the RPG field is so broad and ripe with possibility that really shouldn’t be too hard!

Should indie RPGs be more focused? I’m going to answer this by saying no, I don’t believe they all should, but yes, I’d like to see some more “focused” indie RPGs that really explore the depths of a more limited subset of the genre. There’s a risk of losing the essence of “RPG-ness” if a game does this, but I think this is ripe for indie exploration. What about a game that focuses principally on character creation? Or non-combat interactions? We’ve got some good ones already that focus more on combat and puzzle-solving in RPG style, but I think there’s more that can be done here.

Should indie RPGs de-emphasize narrative? Many already do. Look at the roguelikes. I do think indie RPG creators (and really, ALL game creators, regardless of genre of level of indie-ness) should consider other ways of creating and presenting the narrative. Yes, mainstream RPGs addicted to voice-acting and linear storytelling, this means you, too.

I don’t think “big” RPGs are ever going to do well in any competition structured like the IGF. But I do believe that indie RPG makers can take a few steps that might not only improve their chances, but may also improve the commercial success of their games. And I think if we keep thinking of RPGs in broad terms, there is still an incredibly broad field of untapped potential out there within the genre that is waiting to be explored and tinkered with by innovative game developers.

Get cracking!

Filed Under: Frayed Knights, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Wow. Some excellent points today, Rampant.

    I do think RPGs should be shorter. Partly because now that I’m an adult and don’t have obscene amounts of free time, it be can difficult or impossible to play through all of a massive RPG. But even examining the issue from a gameplay side, RPGs should be shorter.

    Most RPGs run out of story long before the game ends. I’m just going to say it – if you have more than 1 or 2 plot twists in your game story, it is too damn long or convoluted. If your narrative can sustain a long game, fine. But most can’t. RPGs have a problem with, as I put it crassly, “ending abortions”. This is where in RPG stories all the stars have aligned, the boss is encountered, it looks like everything is going to be resolved (and indeed, if the game ended here it would be a satisfying conclusion), and then as the boss dies he screams out he wasn’t the ultimate evil and the world is still in danger. Forget if no ground work was laid for this “revelation” beforehand – it’s like the writers went “Oops! Our plot’s over and we have 30 hours of game time left to fill! Quick, make up a new villain, fast!”

    One “ending abortion” can be done as a plot twist and if properly hinted at and prepared for can be an amazing story element, but when it happens OVER and OVER again you just have to roll your eyes. This is also when palette swapped enemies start making appearances.

    This all ties into RPGs being more focused. I think they should be. RPGs would do a lot better as a whole to have a sharper focus on mechanics and narrative, even if that means the game only lasts 10-15 hours. Look at Recettear – that game focused on being a shop merchant in an RPG world and was amazing. You leveled up, you got new bonuses and abilities, you had encounters of different challenge ratings, you even had “boss battles” in the form of making a sales quota each week. And it had a narrative and engaging characters.

    I guess that’s the direction a lot of mainstream RPGs are headed, but it could be done better. A lot of old RPGs, fondly as we may remember them, were more focused on wasting your time than providing something meaningful. “Walk in real time across a continent!” “Grind 30 hours for this cool power! (That you’ll need to defeat that one boss and no one else.)” Etc. So, yes, indie RPG developers should look to the past for inspiration, but stop worshiping it as some kind of golden age of perfection and drop a lot of the bad habits it instilled in the genre.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Heh – you echo my own thoughts.

    For me, the old games are still fun. I enjoy many of them more than their modern counterparts. But that’s not to say they were perfect. The modern games have branched off in a couple of different directions to deal with the problems of the past, and I don’t really have a problem with that. But that’s not saying that’s the “one true path,” nor that their ancestors were perfect.

    Honestly, this is exactly what the indies should be doing. Pulling out what was awesome in the past but perhaps discarded by the mainstream studios, polishing it up, and innovating on it. We’ve got the chance to play “what if” with a genre. Back it up 10-20 years, and then explore different directions?

    Recettear is a fantastic example, IMO. Way to take the jRPG formula and turn it on its ear, yet still feel like an action-jRPG!

    To be honest, that’s my one reservation about the upcoming Legend of Grimrock. While I’m sure I’ll enjoy a modern retread of well-travelled 1990-era Dungeon Master / Eye of the Beholder games, I’m really hoping they have their own “special sauce” to add to the mix.

    As to length – I love a good, long game I can sink my teeth into. But far too many RPGs (then and now) do overstay their welcome.

  • Anon said,

    The indie CRPG scene at this moment is really nothing more than a ghetto.

    Don’t believe me? Well…

    – Go to indiegames.com, as nice as it may be, and count how many indie CRPGs they cover…

    – Examine all prominent indie bundles and see how many CRPGs they have included since the first Humble Bundle. They have shooters, jump & runs, puzzlers, small strategy titles and the occasional graphics adventure – but no CRPGs.
    They either know what sells well or are afraid to try out.
    The only outfit really doing CRPG “bundles” is GOG, who is acting like a counterweight here – and we all know why…

    – If *you* want news about indie CRPGs you go to a site that specialized in it – like Jay’s old barn here or a site that only covers CRPGs like RPGWatch.com

    So what’s the problem with CRPGs?
    – They need a lot of time to make (hear me, Jay?), which translates in man years (bringing in large crews doesn’t really mix with indie, doesn’t it)
    – They need a lot of time to review (or judge)
    – They need a lot of time to play (if they are worth the trouble)

    This is why the “hipster indie developer scene” rather prefers to try out yet another jump&run with oh-so-innovative game mechanics.
    Combine this with butt-ugly and/or primitive graphics (the horrendous VVVVVV comes to mind, good example for primitive graphics done right: Minecraft) and you are set.
    I have seen so many direct clones of popular games (or rather games that were popular at some point in time) that they make me sick. And I was truly shocked when I recently saw people trying to make a quick buck on a lunar lander type of game.

    That’s also why Joe-Would-Be-Mainstream-Reviewer doesn’t really like to review CRPGs. They are oh-so-boring and prevent him from trying out new and cooler stuff. Only people dedicated to CRPGs are happily and diligently review indie CRPGs (I’m not talking Skyrim or Dragon Age here, if you haven’t noticed).
    Give them a “slow” turn-based CRPG and they will call it “old fashioned”. This won’t scare away an RPG fan but regular gamers that may have the spark of interest…

    Most Western hemisphere gamers aren’t CRPG gamers. They may have been at some time – in the early eighties, perhaps, with their Apple II’s, when there weren’t too many paying gamers at all – but after that only the Japanese kept CRPGs out of their niche. One may argue that Final Fantasy is not was it once was but then have a good look at Bioware and cry…
    Yes, Skyrim is a big commercial success but it is as much CRPG as it is world simulation and action-adventure. Ask around who plays it and you will find many people claiming that they usually don’t play CRPGs at all…

    Unless these factors (people are willing to develop, review and play CRPGs) in the equation change the result will always be the same: True (=indie) CRPG will be isolated and have a limited audience.