Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Keeping an RPG Series Fresh

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 20, 2012

One summer day I was running a Call of Cthulhu adventure for some friends who were old hands at the game.  They’d played it a lot more than I had, but hadn’t played the module I was running.  They had new characters, as it was a one-off-game. And… well, we all noticed it right away. It felt stale. The Chaosium module adhered to formula, I guess, and everybody was playing their characters “ignorant” even though the players could immediately identify with the vaguest of hints who the “big bad” of the game would be centered around. The characters had been made with an eye towards the rules and style of the game, so the “best” characters were usually not those with the highest firearms skills, but strong Research scores.

Yeah, for those of you who unfamiliar with Call of Cthulhu, a lot of the game involves spending time in libraries or halls of records or interviewing old-timers. It’s generally a game about solving mysteries, but the mysteries usually resolve into some cult or another worshiping some horrible elder being and in turn having access to some dark magic and supernatural minions.

And that was the problem. As much as we loved the game (and still do…), it had gotten kind of stale. Too predictable.

This became a little bit of a problem with CRPGs as well. Especially RPG series. Which opens up a question – what part gets stale? The mechanics? The story? The “formula?” All of it? Many readers here can name some games series that really started getting that way (arguably, Wizardry started out that way). And in some ways, the entire genre suffered from this during the early 90’s (though I think a glut of low-quality products had more to do with it…)

How much needs to change? Is a CRPG using the same engine – or same game rules – for more than a sequel or two doomed to getting stale and boring?  Do you have to change everything to keep it fresh? At what point do you screw up the series so the fans no longer feel like they are playing the same game?

I’ve played several game systems where the mechanics of the game were fine (not perfect, but fine) for many, many campaigns.  The game didn’t need to change, only the story and characters. The mechanics formed a platform, a foundation, that didn’t need many changes to make an enjoyable game. Part of the reason we’ve still enjoyed Call of Cthulhu for so many years is that we started playing adventures that really departed from the traditional Lovecraft / Chaosium formula. So maybe it was more of a content problem than a case of game-system fatigue.

On the CRPG side, I think of Planescape: Torment.  While it used the same engine and rules system as the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale series, it stood out as something very unique. Possibly too unique, as I understand sales of this critically acclaimed classic were never as good as either of its siblings.

This really isn’t limited to RPGs, or video games. TV series deal with the same issue. Viewers want “more of the same, only different.” Change too little, and viewers depart in boredom. Change too much, and viewers depart because it’s no longer the same series they enjoyed when they started watching. You can find parallels in almost all other media – music, books, movies, you name it.

With CRPGs, we have three axes to play with: The narrative axis, the “mechanics” axis (I’d call this the underlying rules system), and the presentation axis (user interface, graphics, sound, etc.). Is it okay to change things on one axis at a time? A little bit on all three? How much is too much, and how much is too little, to keep a game series “fresh” and interesting but still true to its core?

Filed Under: Game Development - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

  • Tesh said,

    I think this can vary wildly with taste. I’m a fan of mechanic and story experimentation, but graphics don’t matter as much. Of course, too much experimentation does break the learning curve between games and shoves me out of my happy acclimation from one title to another.

    It’s definitely a fine line to walk, tied up with nostalgia and “cloneitis” and even plagiarism. Seems we silly humans don’t like big changes all that much most of the time, but without innovation and change, we stagnate and die. Life’s weird.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Interesting question. I think according to your axes system, really two of the three axes need to change from game to game, with the narrative axis being the most important.

    I think it all comes down to surprise. We like being pleasantly surprised, because surprises give us a stimulating reward or a challenge to overcome. Too often, what causes an RPG series to start feeling boring or dry and no longer “fresh” is that it has been mined free of surprises.

    With the mechanics axis, lack of surprise means either the mechanics weren’t deep enough, or the series has gone on so long that all the optimal strategies and builds have been discovered. When we first start playing with new mechanics there are always things for us to discover – what are he most effective abilities, and builds? What unique strategies can we develop? Etc. If mechanics don’t change then after a lot of games or a long series, we as players learn the “perfect” way to use the game mechanics to our advantage and the game ceases to be a GAME and instead becomes something to do by rote, like having a chess pattern you know always results in victory. In other words, no more surprises and boredom sets in.

    The narrative axis is the one that ostensibly changes every game, but often only on the surface, while the underlying pattern remains the same. RPG series can start to follow the same beats and plot points after awhile, while only the names and details change. This is where cliches set in. I read and played so much fantasy growing up that now I almost get nauseous when I encounter the genre. What once seemed fresh and new I can now check off points on a list in my mind, know the entire story and how it all we end after a chapter or two.

    This can happen when a game or series sets its scope too narrow. For instance in the Call of Cthulu game you pointed out each adventure or campaign inevitably revolves around a cult or an elder god awakening. I’m sure a lot of the enjoyment of the game the first few times around is discovering all the details about the cult, their beliefs and objectives, the details of the elder god and its powers, etc. But eventually you are going to have to start recycling themes and elements. Regardless of how it happens, players will start to recognize narrative patterns, eliminating surprises and inducing boredom.

    Even a subversion, where the strange happening really all turn out to be a coincidence and that shreaking in the attic is really just a loose window can only be done once or twice before becoming boring itself. A game like Call of Cthulu doesn’t allow a huge scope in variety of adventures, so you’ll start experiencing deja vu as a player.

    The presentation axis is the least important of all the axes, but it can help make old mechanics or narrative feel fresh and exciting by presenting them in a new way. This why custom chess boards are so popular – chess never changes, but it can feel exciting and unique with custom pieces and boards and a new theme. I have a chess set that is the ancient Egyptians versus the Roman Legion, my friend has a chess set that is Star Wars with Rebels versus the Empire. Same game and rules, but our imaginations give the action a different context due to the presentation. When presentation and thus context remains the same, eventually our imaginations will run out of ways to feel about the game. We will have no more emotional surprises, and thus again boredom sets in.

    So that’s my theory – lack of surprises equals stale RPGs.

  • Fumarole said,

    Very unique? Too unique? You’re better than that Jay!

  • Adam said,

    I think mechanics should remain stable, with the exception of attempts at minor improvements (which always have a chance of backfiring), because the nuts and bolts of how a person plays is usually the most difficult thing to grasp. In a game with a complex ruleset, switching the rules around between installments can cause confusion and discontent.

    Presentation can change as technology advances, but shouldn’t be critical, and designers should always be aware of the traps created by trying to push presentation too much. For example, by heavily relying on voice actors and the spoken word the Elder Scrolls has severely limited NPC dialogue.

    Narrative is the most important thing that must change. Every plot shouldn’t be limited to “A Nobody gradually becomes a Hero and saves the World.” It’s lazy, repetition causes staleness, and it doesn’t ring true on an emotional level. With thousands of stories, books, films, plays, and real life examples of wonderful narratives from which to draw inspiration, it’s dispiriting that so many game designers take such an easy path.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I couldn’t agree more about narrative. Too many story tellers and game developers use Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey as a checklist, resulting in all those “A nobody gradually becomes a hero and saves the world” stories.

    This also results in escalation of narrative during a series. If the heroes saved the world in Game 1, then they must save the universe in Game 2, etc. etc.

    I truly believe this is a big reason the Final Fantasy games no longer resonate with me. I’m so sick of the teen or young adult saving the world. Maybe it is a question of demographics – I’ve obviously moved out of the target age range of the games now.

    Instead I find myself drawn to more mature narratives. Dead Rising 2 and Shattered Memories narratives really resonated with me as an adult. No one is saving the world in these games – instead in each one a father is trying to find and protect a child. The time limit Chuck Greene faced – that of making sure his daughter got the doses of medicine she needed on time to avoid death – was much more powerful for me than “saving the world”.

    I’m sure it is a symptom of my age and changing priorities, since a lot of young people disliked the Chuck Greene story. As a teen or young adult I think you have these power fantasies, or want to save the world or at least change it, so those types of game narratives appeal to you. But when you are older and have a family or children, you realize that if the choice was between your child and the world, you’d let the world burn.

    I would love to see more mature RPG narratives. Why must the hero always be teen or young adult out to save the world? I think an interesting game could have an older, retired hero who has grown soft and now finds his home village under threat. Why not a whole RPG where that initial village that seems to always burn up is the thing to save?

    Or a spy or science fiction RPG where the whole game is infiltrating one organization as a deep agent to assassinate the ruthless leader running it?

    What about an RPG that takes place entirely within a mental hospital, and the end goal is getting a clean bill of health? Fighting metaphorical demons with the final boss being your own crazy mind could be very cool.

    Recettear was such a breath of fresh air, and it was because it asked the most basic question – “Hey, what if instead of the hero, the player was just one of those ordinary townspeople the hero only talks to if they want to buy something?” The result was amazing, and the player didn’t have to run all over the “world” to experience it.

    Harvest Moon made an entire RPG series based off of being a farmer in a small hamlet! And achieved massive success I might add.

    Too many authors think “epic” requires a giant scope, and that simply isn’t true.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Origin were quite good for keeping the Ultima series going (until the end, anyway.)

    There was quite a lot of variation in terms of plot, the game engine was updated regularly, and the recurring characters got more fleshed out with each game.