Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Design: Why RPGs Shouldn’t Be Too Short

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 25, 2016

ScottPilgrimSeveral years ago I wrote an article musing over the possibility of “short-form” RPGs… like the equivalent of a short story vs. a novel.  In retrospect, I think I understand the reasons why. Live and learn.

In general, RPGs are about character development. This happens on the mechanical level, as you level up from a chew toy to a legendary hero. But it should also happen on a narrative level as the character grows and progresses to become an active force and agent of change in his world, hopefully accruing something that – in a computer RPG – might be the equivalent of a personality and history, at least in the mind of the player.

This sort of thing takes development, and is hard to present in a game that is over in 5 or 6 hours. But there’s more to it than that.

One of the most compelling properties of RPGs – the elements appropriated in other genres – is the idea of accumulating stuff: skills, equipment, even houses. That’s all fun, but it only makes sense within the context of the world. When you’ve completed Skyrim, there’s no longer any point to that house you’ve built and painstakingly decorated. Perhaps that is an advantage of the MMOs – the persistent world is always there if you want to pay it a visit.

There’s a feeling of dissatisfaction when the game comes to an end and all the really cool stuff you’ve been acquiring and building suddenly becomes meaningless. I suppose it’s analogous to death, and you need a really satisfying conclusion to make up for the fact that your Armor of Uber Awesomeness will never be used again, and there’s nothing left for you to do with your crazy powers of Sub-Atomic Particle Awareness. We need a game that lasts long enough so we can feel we’ve gotten a good use out of these toys. That’s also a strong suggestion that designers shouldn’t save the best for the last minute.

Of course, in saying all this, I’m ignoring the roguelikes. Many of those games only last minutes (and end in disaster), and encapsulate the basic RPG experience pretty well, but emphasize replayability. This doesn’t address the possibilities of the (very rare) episodic RPGs, either, which have character and world persistence broken up into smaller chunks.

Things vary by game experience and by audience, so I don’t think there’s a hard-and-fast minimum time rule that can be applied. But in general, our relationship with our character(s) in an RPG has to last long enough to enjoy both the mechanical and narrative character growth. In a rich RPG system (and most are, these days), this will take a while.

(Image from the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. The World)

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 18 Comments to Read

  • Maklak said,

    > When you’ve completed Skyrim, there’s no longer any point to that house you’ve built and painstakingly decorated. […]

    There was a similar argument about ending the game with a stash of cash that is now somehow “useless” because it wasn’t used to buy items. I wholeheartedly disagree with this load of crap. I like to imagine that now that my character has a small fortune, he can finally rest and enjoy life, at least for a while. I mean, imagine you accomplished something difficult, time consuming and potentially deadly and haven’t got much to show for it at the end of it. Was it really worth it?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Depends on how satisfying the conclusion was, really.

    With the Elder Scrolls games and other more “open ended” games, it’s pretty open-ended even after you’ve concluded the story, so you can end when you are ready to be done.

  • Infinitron said,

    One advantage of short RPGs is that they allow those with minmaxer tendencies to relax a little and try doing some wacky stuff even if it’s suboptimal. Because the game is so short that it doesn’t really matter, right? It’s just a “burner” character.

    (This can also happen when you sense you’re near the end of a long game)

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I’d prefer more “short” experiences, personally. There was a time (as a teenager, probably) where seeing “over 80 hours long!!!!” on a box would make me think I was getting value for money, but these days I just wonder how much of that is filler.

    A focused experience is surely a better one, although open-world games like Skyrim provide a counterbalance.

    The RPG that I’ve enjoyed the most and replayed the most has to be Quest for Glory though, which is quite a short game, especially by RPG standards. Also a favourite is Fallout 1, which is also quite short and focused (compared to the others in the series). Shadowrun Returns took me around 10 hours to finish, and Dragonfall less than 30.

    Using one of my current games as a comparison, we have Knights of the Old Republic, which I’ve played for over an hour and a half and I feel like I’ve accomplished precisely nothing. As I contemplate another fetch quest and more combat encounters, I’m just hoping that the story and characters provide enough motivation to continue.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I guess then we have the flip side… RPGs that overstay their welcome.

    Note that I’m not calling a 25+ hour RPG “short.” I’m talking about a form of RPGs that I haven’t REALLY seen except in a few experimental titles.

    Or roguelikes. But the point remains… how much do you care about your roguelike character? It’s generally a direct relationship with how long they survive. How long you get to spend with them.

    “Long” is really a relative thing. I think some of the other systems – without much leveling and item upgrades – could work pretty well in a shorter time-frame. There, the impact is more narrative-based… are you still just “getting into it” when it’s over?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I guess part of this stemmed from thinking short stories through a bit more deeply. Short stories aren’t mini-novels. The character “arcs” are really tiny and focused. You really just explore one moment in a character’s life… a pivotal point, a change, a major decision. (Exceptions abound, but that’s the general gist). That’s really the opposite of where an RPG goes, which is exploring the growth and many changes of a character over the course of their career (or a major adventure).

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I guess I’m thinking an adventure and character growth can be expressed in a shorter-form game. You see games doing this all the time, just as side-quests. Those Dark Brotherhood quests in the Elder Scrolls games, or various monster hunting ones in The Witcher, or a simple detective story could all be spun into a small adventure with interesting choices and narrative/character development.

    I don’t have any experience with pen-and-paper RPGs, but I was under the impression this was sort of how they worked. You took your characters on an adventure which might last a few hours, and then in some cases you might take those same characters on a different, higher level quest, or you might use different characters in a different system.

    In both the Ultima and Quest for Glory games, they provided a rudimentary way of continuing your adventure both narratively (you’re supposed to be the same character), and also through the game itself, as you could import a character from the previous game into the next one. They also provided a series of shorter games that tied together (somewhat loosely in places) into a larger arc.

    I cared far more for these characters than I do for most larger, more typical RPGs (various exceptions of course).

  • Tesh said,

    I’ve tinkered with a tactical RPG design for years that’s part rogue-like, in that you don’t need to be attached to any give unit. Their inevitable deaths are irrelevant to the lion’s share of progression, since you as a player manage the progress of the species, not individuals, and your tactical success is remembered in the species’ DNA.

    That divorce between character progression and *player* progression is one way to let players feel like they are getting something out of their time/skill investment. Of course, it comes at a cost of not getting emotionally involved with the characters. It’s a different sort of structure, but it could also make for shorter chapters in the overall narrative.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    And that may be a part of it… designers may have to tinker with the underlying already-blurry definition of what makes an RPG to make it work.

    Yeah, we still have one-off adventures with dice & paper. And maybe that’s a lot of what I’m thinking of… at the end of the adventure, we’re sitting with rewards, XP, and changes to our character’s lives and ready to move on to “the next thing” but there is no next thing. Not unless we turn it into a campaign.

  • McTeddy said,

    Gotta say I disagree completely. I’d take a great game that was too short over any that outstay their welcome. I’ll buy a sequel to a short game, but I won’t buy a sequel to… well… Skyrim.

    I spend alot of time in mobile space and I play more than a few small RPGs, some as short as an hour or two. But they can still hit most of the points.

    How long is a movie? Yet, people still get attached to characters in that short period. There’s no reason a well written game can’t do the same to the same degree.

    Sure, you won’t get the same epic storyline of a young boy growing into a legendary knight… but you can get a darn good tale of a farmer forced to defend his town from bandits.

    A small, condensed tale… but still engaging and epic in it’s own way.

    But the thing about RPGs is that they often let you make choices meaning that even a 2 hour game can kill 10 hours after replays and exploring different builds. Plenty of time to get your fill and get attached to the characters.

    If you question the merits of a short RPG, look up the playstation 2 game “Way of the Samurai”. One of the most amazing short form game’s I’d ever played and ticks most of the RPG checkboxes.

  • CdrJameson said,

    I think the problem for short RPGs comes if they try the D&D-style high-fantasy zero-to-hero arc. That takes a while to build (and gets a bit dull when you reach ‘hero’).

    Short-form RPGs need far less power difference between start and end, so tend towards adventures or RPG/adventure hybrids. You can’t do so much ‘gating’ of areas. I think they work well when you focus on accomplishing a fixed task (eg. Escape, Solve Mystery). I think this is how convention RPG sessions work, from those I’ve seen.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    😀 Good thing I’ve got more enthusiasm for the discussion here than a need to salve my ego. I can’t say I’m convinced yet (I got here slowly), I’m seeing a lot of merit in the arguments. Is everyone else thinking of possibilities?

  • Tesh said,

    “Is everyone else thinking of possibilities?” Oh, yes. Add them to my Design Sketchbook, weave into projects I’m designing… there’s plenty of food for thought here. I can’t *do* much with them at the moment, but hey, gotta keep the brain active.

  • Modran said,

    There’s a concept I’ve been playing with in my head about a small RPG with a lot of replayability gated by level.
    Lemme explain that: You start off as a mere lvl 1 hero in your hometown ClicheTown and one of the Bad Guy’s lieutnant comes a’burning. You face him, and, of course, get trashed. Cue a light version of the hero’s journey, where you don’t get the Bad Guy, but do something to help, like shut down one of his factories. Rolling credits and “What if you had had more training?”
    The New game+ sees you perhaps trashing the lieutnant this time, saving your town and opening a different story. Or, you get trashed again, but, remember when you couldn’t get into that mine to get the unobtainium so the Real Hero could get the Bad Guy? Well this time, you can !
    And so on and so forth. Have a maybe 2-4 hours for each story, each time ending with “what if you had had more training?”
    Think Bravely Default, but with each chapter more equal in length 🙂

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Do it! It sounds intriguing!

  • Modran said,

    Ok, next time, I’ll make that more readable by skipping lines between paragraphs… M’sorry…

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    😀 No worries.

  • Maklak said,

    It seems like I’m one of few people who root for “bad guys”. They get shit done and I don’t care if they use slavery, necromancy or animal cruelty to do it. Sometimes ruthlessness is the most efficient way of rebuilding after some disaster… or building an empire to end a bloody feud among multiple small kingdoms.

    I also don’t understand, how exactly is “shutting down a factory” helping save a town, especially after it’s economy goes to shit. Heh, actually it would be a nice ending in a “good job breaking it, hero” way. The “bad guy’s” accountant has a few choice words for the “hero” after being defeated. Then things get even worse.