Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 28, 2012
I feel a little heretical asking this question, in an age when $60 mainstream games have been cut down to 12 hours (or less) of gameplay (“But we make up for it in multiplayer!”). In discussing turn-based versus action-based RPGs with a friend and fellow Frayed Knights developer Xenovore (much more of a fan of fast-paced action-RPGs), this topic came up as we listed RPGs that we grew bored with at some point and quit playing. In most of these cases, there was no rage-quit or moment of too great frustration – it was simply a case of it eventually quit drawing our interest, possibly because something new and shiny was installed on our hard drives.
Usually, it plays out like this: I start playing an RPG. I have a great time playing. I get invested in the storyline. And then, the early set-up stuff goes away and I’m playing through the mid-game. It’s slow. I’m still invested, but I’m doing a lot of make-work and grinding. I get lost figuring out what I’m doing next. I’m still playing, but it’s no longer compelling. I’m not feeling the urge to play every evening when I get home from work. Something happens and interrupts my ‘habit’ of playing. I play once or twice more, days later, trying to remember what I was doing next, and trying to pick up the thread of the story which hasn’t had much presence since the beginning of the game. And then I realize that it’s been months since I last played, and there are other games waiting to be played…
The real problem isn’t so much that the games are too long as a whole. But eventually any games (or stories of any other medium) will begin to drag in the middle. The beginning may be great, the ending may be fantastic, but at some point the middle will have simply gone on too long. This happens with RPGs more often than not, in my opinion.
But that’s just the story side of things. Some novels and movies have the same problem. The power of games is that they are much more than a storytelling medium. Solid, compelling gameplay will keep people (like me) playing with only the barest hint of an end-goal in sight, let alone an actual quality plot. Hey, some of my most recent indie favorites – like Din’s Curse, Legend of Grimrock, and Knights of the Chalice – are exactly like that. Story-wise, there’s really not a whole lot there in any of them. But there’s enough interesting things to do and challenges to face that I keep playing. Whether it’s the Diablo-style feeder bar of constant leveling and items that increase my power, or the need to constantly revise my tactics to react to interesting puzzles or tactical challenges, I can go for hours with the most threadbare of narratives.
And so in theory, you can combine these two factors to make a game that can have extremely long, playable “middles,” like those big, meaty RPGs I love to talk about, right?
I’m not sure those factors are multiplicative. Or even additive. A game’s enjoyability may only last until either the story or the gameplay start feeling stale, whichever comes first. Fun narrative advancement may help fill in the lags in advancement or any place where the gameplay might start to get a little repetitive. Solid, entertaining mechanics may happily fill hours of time when I couldn’t give a fig what’s happening in the storyline (and if you’ve ever skipped past a cut-scene because you want to get back to the action, you know what I mean). But if both start getting a little tired at the same point, I’m ready for the game to be done.
If everybody reached that point at the same time, game design would be an easy job.
One of the virtues of Bethesda’s RPGs is that the player is empowered to end the main storyline pretty much whenever he wants (realistically, I guess within about ten hours of play). Curiously enough, I tend to put more hours into those games than most other RPGs – often ending in or close to triple digits. There’s just enough interesting subplots and advancement possibilities going on to keep me occupied for a while.
So I see five answers here. They are possibly brought down from the lofty heights of Mount Obvious, and I’m sure there are more to be found, but here are my suggestions:
#1 – Shorten the game. I do love myself some big ol’ meaty epics, so I don’t want all RPGs to do this, but just as all other media can be made or broken by the quality of the editing, so can games. We need RPGs that can be finished in a week or two (or maybe a single caffeine-fueled weekend).
#2 – Improve the game mechanics to keep things compelling through the end. Maybe the reward structure is too regular, or too irregular. Maybe the challenges are too repetitive, or require such similar decisions on the part of the player that they feel repetitive.
#3 – Punch up the narrative to fix the middle. Note that this may often mean changing the beginning or ending (which in game development can be pretty hard). Maybe it’s flowing at too even of a pace for too long. Things need to be changed up. A reversal needs to happen somewhere in there. Maybe a subplot just isn’t working very well and needs to be removed or changed. Whatever. The story needs fixing.
#4 – Do what Bethesda does and allow the player to go for the end-game at the time of his choosing.
#5 – Break into pieces, as multiple games, episodes, or expansions. Treat each of them as a stand-alone story that simply have a larger arc running between them.
Again, not rocket science. But I feel a lot of RPGs – indie and mainstream, could benefit not from being made shorter, but tighter.
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