Designing a Better RPG – Epilogue

The prior three posts (post one, post two, post three) each made me happy to write. I liked musing on fun ideas. What makes me sad is that game design is an object at rest. For various reasons (ego, money, job security, insane hours, focus groups, risk/reward formulas, constant turn-over, etc.), new ideas are rarely forthcoming; instead, many games are derivative – each one slightly improving upon an established, successful formula.

I read a Spider-Man 2 (dev: Treyarch) post-mortem that discussed their web-slinging mechanic. In the first title, the camera was fixed overhead and the player was in a lot of interior locations. The webs that you swung on didn’t “attach” to anything; you hit a button, Spidey shot a web off-screen, a swing animation played, and you moved. Perfectly fine.

No, not this Spider-Man game...

No, not this Spider-Man game...

But someone at the company got the crazy idea of letting the player freely move about the city. And he complemented it with the new-fangled idea of using a physics-based, web-slinging model. You’d fire a web at a wall or light post and – based on speed and angles and other factors – you’d move. It would make movement a lot trickier, he assumed, but it would be more visceral and Spider-Man-like.

It was too late into development for Spidey 1, so they shelved it for a potential sequel. Before Spidey 2, they brought it back to the table. The producer, faced with the possibility of investing limited man-hours into this new, untried feature, said it was too complicated to develop and offered too little – at the cost of making things too difficult for the gamer.

In other words, objects at rest. But a small group formed and, probably in their off-hours, assembled a prototype and showed it to the producer. This time, he could see it. And it was fun. He was sold. And Spidey 2 revamped the movement system to incorporate this feature. And the genre feasted on fresh air.

One of the big differences between games and movies is a thriving-and-mature independent industry (movies have it, games don’t). Jane Doe can write a great-but-controversial story with never-before-seen film techniques, gather some actor friends who are interested in the subject matter, and release it in arthouses across the country and make a few million dollars. Or she can release it on YouTube, for free. Regardless, she can compete. And Hollywood can spot these successes and grow from them. The industry as a whole gets better. The fans are made happier.

In gaming, I can put together a role-playing game that features architecture assembled from placeables as opposed to static level art – so that I can swap pieces to create an illusion of a growing/crumbling town. I can write dialogue for a romance interest and then dynamically drop it on the character that the player happens to choose for a romance. I can create an “Escort Linda” quest and then, when the player ignores Linda and she dies, have other characters talk the next day about the unexpected tragedy – and use that to create a murder mystery or a revenge plot.

ASCII Adventure

It’s hard enough getting people to play big-budget games when they don’t trust or respect reviewers, dislike the other elitist gamers out there, and can’t afford the games themselves – or the three systems they need to buy to run the three games they want to play. (And that’s completely side-stepping the majority of games, all designed for horny, pre-teen boys – and turning off everyone else simultaneously.)

But if it looks like an ASCII adventure, what gamers left are going to play it? If it isn’t pimped by Electronic Arts or hailed by a (non-existent) Roger Ebert-equivalent, what gamers left are going to play it? I’m proud of my ideas, but ideas are a dime a dozen; game development is costly. And complicated. If no one is buying it, or making it, or playing it – then developers aren’t taking notes. The industry isn’t growing. And the fans are left to suffer with the same ol’ stale games.

0 thoughts on “Designing a Better RPG – Epilogue

  1. All this also reminds me that I need to start posting about the Witcher – the game I’m currently playing now that I’ve beat Fallout 3. 🙂 I guess that’s coming soon? :p

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