Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Computer RPGS: The Wallflowers of the Steam Age? Part 2

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 11, 2014

wiz4tombIn light of Computer RPGS: The Wallflowers of the Steam Age Part 1, are computer role-playing games worse off in the age of cheap, plentiful games than other genres, and if so, why? What inhibits people from starting them, and once they start, what makes them give up long before the game is complete?

From the responses I’ve seen, the seriousness of the problems with RPGs is more acute than other genres for some gamers, but not others. While the responses were largely from RPG fans, and not from the gaming audience in general (many of whom may very well hate the very notion of the role-playing game), my feeling is that there’s nothing truly unique / specific to RPGs that might make players reluctant to start or complete the games.

That means, for my purposes, I can probably ignore anything that suggests that RPGs should be less RPG-like.

But there are a lot of things that do leave players feeling cold. Trying to combine lots of specific issues into some general problems, here are the top ten reasons, in no particular order:

1. RPGs take too long to complete

For many players, the ability to enjoy the same game for dozens of hours is a virtue, but it is daunting to some. If I only have time for maybe 5 hours of game-playing a week, and a game will require about 70 hours of gameplay to complete, that means I’m going to be “stuck” with that game for several months.  While that can be wonderful and exciting, it can also be a bit daunting from the get-go. As plentiful as games are now, a lot of people really want experiences that are between 8-20 hours, rather than the dozens and dozens of hours demanded of RPGs in the “good old days” (which, in retrospect, weren’t always so good). In a lot of ways, the long playing time of the old games gave rise to some of the most time-wasting mechanics still present today.

2. RPGs take too long to get into

This is a bigger issue, and I don’t know anybody who would strongly disagree. While the style and mechanics of RPGs make it difficult for the player to really “get” the story and and mechanics in the first five or ten minutes, many games can do a lot better. The culprits are too numerous to name, but I’d say some of the bigger, mainstream titles are worse culprits. It’s like they are so afraid of exposing players to the complexity of the game that they never turn control over to the player.  Likewise, the stories may be deep and interesting, but it takes forever to really offer the player a “hook.”

3. RPGs demand long gameplay sessions

Some players complain that – either because of save point limitations or simply the dearth of natural breaking points, RPGs often feel like they need long, solid stretches of gameplay. This limits the appeal, because adult players often find their time to game in much smaller segments – ten minutes here, a half-hour there. We may have twelve hours a week we can devote to gaming, but never in any block of time larger than an hour. If we feel we can’t enjoy and make progress in an RPG in that time, we’re not going to play it during our twenty-minute “breaks.”

FF124. Mechanics grow stale after several hours

If the players feel like they are just grinding – not gaining any truly new toys or powers to play with – and facing very similar challenges hour after hour, they are going to get bored and quit. There’s nothing exciting about gaining five levels only to learn you are fighting a level 28 orc instead of a level 23 orc, using exactly the same strategies.

Worse – and I have heard this from a lot of people – is when the game mechanics really require very little strategy, and are really dependent on character attributes / levels more than anything else. This leads to grinding, as the only way to get past parts of the game is to make your character stronger, rather than trying to be more clever about it.

5. Storyline grows stale after several hours (or never gets going in the first place!)

I personally feel that a good story can make up for (or at least temporarily fill in for) mediocre mechanics in an RPG. I’m also of the opinion that you can have a great game with little or no story (see most roguelikes…).  But in a story-heavy RPG, if players are still having a tough time wondering why they should care what’s going on, it’s going to be hard for them to care about double-clicking the game icon when there are promises of more entertaining games out there.

6.  Generic Settings and Storylines

I only remember seeing a couple of comments about this, but I immediately agreed. I can’t remember how many times I’ve been turned off by a game by the introduction, because it sounds like the same kind of crap I’ve already played a dozen times before.

The thing is – not only does this not necessarily require a major effort in world-building, but that’s actually probably counter-productive. People are comfortable with popular fantasy tropes in a way that they wouldn’t be if everything is bizarre, weird, and new.  What’s often needed is attention and detail paid at the micro scale, not at the macro scale. Even if the world as a whole is a Tolkien-inspired D&D-style FauxEuropeanMedievalWorld, if there are some unique ideas and strange occurrences a-brewing in my character’s alchemist’s guild when the game opens, I can be intrigued. Just as I can be intrigued by a million stories taking place somewhere in “the modern world.” There’s no excuse for not having something to make the setting and story “fresh.”

7. Hard to continue after an absence

This includes both forgetting how to play, and simply being unable to remember where you were and what you were doing after an extended time away from the game. It happens – especially when games are pretty long. Maybe a new, shiny game “interrupted” our RPG, but we fully intended to come back to it. But when we try, we are immediately lost.  So we don’t have much fun, and by the time we quit we’ve only barely gotten back on track, but we’re no longer motivated to play again.

This is possibly the number one complaint I heard from people. Some of the problem may stem from most RPGs not being easily playable in bite-sized sessions. But the key point is the assumption that a player will play the RPG from start to finish without major interruption, so they should have kept everything in their head. Not so, especially not in the modern gaming era. “Binge-playing” is now the exception, not the rule.

This is one area where the virtue of a genre (for example, non-linear gameplay) can become a liability if designers aren’t careful.

8.  Lost in Creation

Some players get confused / lost during character creation. Too much to control, and even with instructions its hard to know how the abilities will play out in the game itself.

9. Random, “Filler” Combat

Yeah, some people don’t like surprises, and always want to be the ones to initiate combat. But the problem is made so much worse when the combat doesn’t really have a point, have any real challenge, and serves no purpose other than to slow down progress in the game. People who prefer the exploration aspect (like me) may be willing to accept risk that comes with it, but don’t want to feel penalized for doing so with tedious fights.

10. Frustration Tolerance Exceeded

I didn’t see this one too often, but combined with point 7, this is an issue. After being stymied by a tough boss (especially when it’s clear that going back and grinding more levels is all but required), or a tough puzzle, or simply getting lost in a “what do I do now?” situation, it’s easy to drop the game for a few days. If the game is no less frustrating the next session – or worse, it is more frustrating due to difficulties getting “back into” the game, then it may become indefinitely / permanently shelved.

So there are ten of the reasons players may shy away from or discontinue an RPG. Are there others? Certainly. But it sounds like those are some of the more common reasons cited.

I’d like to work on a part 3 of this series, but it may not be tomorrow. I’d like to talk about some of the solutions to these perceived problems. These can range from well-established practices by modern developers, to wild and experimental concepts that might not work at all, but await some brave indie to give it a try.

Please add your own ideas here. What are some problems I missed, and what are some ways to fix any of these that you’d like to see become common?



Filed Under: Biz, Design, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 8 Comments to Read

  • Felipe Pepe said,

    One thing I feel RPGs are guilty is of filler content. Many games include mechanics such as random encounters and tons of FEDEX side-quest without really needing it, just to have “more than 80 hours of epic quests!”.

    In the end, what would be a awesome 10 hours game becomes 30 mediocre hours.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Totally agree with Felipe Pepe: Any game that markets itself as “Over 80 hours long!” gets a big sigh from me, as I wonder how much filler that it contains.

    Filler combat/grinding is the worst part for me. I could tolerate it much more when I was younger and had more free time (and less games to play) but these days it really bugs me.

    I would love for RPGs to concentrate on interesting encounters (not always combat encounters), quality over quantity. Also, if you are going to include 50 different skills/spells/abilities or whatever, make sure they are actually useful or interesting, otherwise cut them out.

  • Tesh said,

    Minor tangent to #8… I started an Android RPG billed as the Big Thing In Japan or some such. The character creation was barely more than “pick an element, Fire, Earth, Lightning, or Water”. That was a bit of a putoff, actually.

    I don’t demand all the complexity up front, but I do want to know what my choice means to the next few dozen hours of play, especially if I suspect that it’s going to take a fair bit of time to really get the feel for a system, only to want to try something else.

    Alternatively, of course, you can make a short RPG with good reasons to play through again. Chrono Trigger touched a little on that with the New Game + feature. Each time they speed up the leveling curve in WoW, I like it a little more, too.

    I’m also definitely annoyed at things that are designed to slow me down. (WoW and pretty much every other MMO, especially subscription ones, are terrible at this.) I am an Explorer. I’ll stop and smell the roses, read text, poke around the edges of the map. It’s what I do. But once I’ve seen an area and fighting critters there is trivial and rote, let me move on instead of gating content via grind.

    So yes, I love games with a ton of content, but that let me explore it at my own pace instead of trying to push me through the guided tour. This is why Minecraft is still one of my favorites.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Almost all these problems are caused by one thing – RPGs are often TOO LONG. This is the antithesis of good game design / good story design / etc.

    As Felipe Pepe said, there are mediocre or bad RPGs that are dozens of hours long that would be amazing if whittled down to size. Problem 5 is this – RPGs kill story pacing by drawing it out by drip-feed, or destroy the story itself outright by piling one story twist or turn on top of another. Final Fantasy rolls in this technique like Scarface rolls in the white stuff. I shouldn’t need a flowchart and an appendix to make sense of your game story.

    I was reading a book talking about great mystery and noir novels, and it was pointed out that most of them only had 2 or 3 clues, and ONE twist in the story. They are lean and engaging and still feel complex.

    RPGs are bloated. And it is all traceable back to the PnP origins they evolved from. The early cRPGs were trying to replicate long intricate campaigns and endless adventures run by DMs and groups. But how many times have PnP campaigns that ran too long petered out? I’d wager several times if you belong to gaming groups like mine. The best PnP sessions I’ve ever had are those that were self-contained. “Here – pick a character from this cast. Here is the small but engrossing adventure that is entirely self-contained and that we can finish in just a few hours. There will be no continues or sequels. Let’s go!”

    As many have pointed out, it became and still is, an arms race with “# hours gameplay!” on RPG descriptions and boxes. And maybe, to a teen with more time than money, that was a good selling point. It didn’t matter that the plot and events were disjointed, or if it took 4 hours of grinding to beat a boss. Hey, summer break and weekends are long. But as an adult, with disposable income and precious little free time, that same sales pitch is a turn-off for me.

    I still like to binge game – maybe as a habit of the past, or because it just feels “better”. But I only get to do it for 6-7 hours, one day, maybe every other week or once every 3 weeks. So that means even when I am “binging” I want it to be QUALITY binge time. Mechanics that waste my time still annoy me and sour the experience. It makes me think, “Get ON with it! This is the only day I have to play for the next two weeks you stupid game!”

    The other thing that has seriously soured me on cRPGs is Problem 6. As a fantasy reader and RPG player for decades I’ve seen all the genre’s tropes and subversions multiple times, seen every permutation of elf and dwarf possible, and it breaks my heart to say … I’m tired of it. I’m almost thoroughly bored with the genre, but I don’t want to be. Do you know how much I cursed when I found out Project Eternity’s setting by Obsidian would contain elves and dwarves? (“But ours are different!” “That’s what they ALL say.”)

    I want RPGs set in the American Civil War, Prohibition Chicago, 1980s New York, California during the gold rush, etc. Let’s see some creativity with the mechanics and structure applied to different settings than fantasy and sci-fi.

    I’ll close by saying I feel other games are beating cRPGs by solving all ten of these problems by simply adding RPG mechanics to leaner and meaner games that are afraid to try new things thematically in gameplay and story. My cRPGs as a pure breed are set to die out, replaced by more efficient evolutionary descendants.

  • NFLed said,

    Argggh, I do not like reading comments that RPGs are too long because I really enjoy games (including RPGs) which last a long time. I agree that some games are too long and I agree that filler content is not fun but if a game is too long then I can just stop playing it and consider my 30-40 hours fine, or if I like it still then I can keep playing.

  • finbikkifin said,

    8, Lost in Creation, is an excellent point. When an RPG expects me to play for at least 20 hours and throws me into chargen with a bucket of points and a list of skills, I immediately go looking for a guide – not just a list of what does what, but something that tells me how things turn out throughout the game.

    Because I cannot. trust. the developer. Maybe two of the skills barely work, or were never implemented. Maybe being a jack-of-all-trades is amazing, or makes you utterly worthless. Maybe you get an excellent Thief NPC and don’t need any of those skills. Maybe there are half a dozen weapon skills to invest in, but two of them hog all the good weapons, leaving you severely weakened if you picked the wrong option. Maybe an epic, best-part-of-the-game questline is locked behind a skill check and you need to have x points in y before z point or you miss it, or perhaps there’s an early item you can equip when you need to pick locks that gives you +50 to lockpicking, making more than one point worthless. Hell, maybe some skills are actively harmful past a certain point – I know one game where one important-seeming skill which claims to reduce your xp loss for using a certain ability does so, but due to the way xp rewards work it functionally reduces your total xp gained if you buy more than one point of it.

    I don’t know, and quite often it would take a couple of hours of play before any of those revealed themselves to be issues. For some problems, you can play most of the game before realising your character is a mess, because the developer expected you to read their mind before starting out.

    So yeah, sites like beforeiplay.com are a godsend, because some kind goon who has played or finished the game will have written up some non-spoilery tips on what you should know first, and if there’s nothing there I either risk wasting half a dozen hours and having to start over because I screwed my character and made the game twice as hard, look up an in-depth guide and ruin any surprises, or… put the game off, and play something else first.

    Also, many RPGs are far too long, and that length isn’t good length. Some padding is good, and sometimes you want to mindlessly grind for hours, but I’d rather not have 5 hours of fun in a 100 hours of gameplay.

  • automata said,

    I think with the whole “too long” issue it would be worthwhile dividing it into two separate issues.

    On the one hand, you have “the game is too long for its content” which I understand: too much padding and needlessly repetitive actions can drain any fun-ness. This seems particularly bad near the end of games, when you are quite close to success but the developers haven’t had the time/money/energy to properly fill the ending with content.

    The other seems to boil down to “I don’t have time to play/finish this game or this type of game”, which to me seems to be a pretty toxic attitude to take. You’re essentially limiting games, or at least a genre of games, to only those that suit your play- and lifestyle, which doesn’t seem right to me. You don’t *have* to play or finish every game in a particular genre, after all.

  • Marcin said,

    I was one of the 7s, and wanted to expand a little bit on that. My gripe is mainly with mechanics, especially if they’re convoluted for the sake of (it seems) being convoluted. A lot of RPGs provide journals, load-screen summaries or even (in one memorable case of a jrpg I now forget the title of) the ability to get a voiceover recap, complete with cutscene stills, of “What has gone on before” – so the story is covered.

    But you can’t really do that with unclear, convoluted or counter-intuitive mechanics. I’m not even talking about stat soup (although that doesn’t help), I’m talking about things like ‘Oh, is this the game where tanking doesn’t work’ or ‘Do stat ailments work on bosses in this one or not?’ or even ‘Are this game’s rogues ranged or melee?’ It’s one of the main reasons I had a hard time getting into the Witcher games, for example – I’ve read all the books in their original editions at least twice over and really wanted to get into it, but the uncertainty of whether W2 wanted to be an action RPG (if so, clunky and slow – not qualities I’d associate with even a fledgling witcher!) or … something else?? kept me away far longer than expected.

    … now I’m sounding curmudgeonly. 🙂