Table of Contents

Over the course of this web log, I’ve written a few articles with my thoughts on what makes an RPG good and how they could be better or different. What I’ve written so far is by no means comprehensive, but here are some essays on the topic in order from oldest to most recent:

Random Thoughts: The post that kicked it all of, and it came at the end as an aside. In the post I raise a simple question I’ve long struggled with: how do we take the coolness of a cutscene and turn it into player-determined gameplay?

Dexter, the video game: At this point, I still hadn’t formalized the idea of a series of posts. But after learning that there would be an upcoming video game based on the TV show Dexter I decided to put my love affair with Fahrenheit on full, unabashed display as a reference point to describe how I’d design the game.

Gaming Immersion: Here I discuss the importance of pulling your audience into the game experience. Immersion is a subjective term and can be achieved in different ways. Tetris can be immersive as much as any graphically-stunning first-person shooter. In the post, I make note of a couple examples of cool moments I’ve had while playing games that stand out in my memory.

Three-Part Series, Part One: Some of my better gaming moments have come when my party of adventurers wasn’t at full strength and I had to be creative to get them through a difficult encounter instead of relying on superiority. This article is, in part, about that very idea and different ways it could work in a game.

Three-Part Series, Part Two: Failure! How many games let the player advance the story after failing? Very, very few. I try to get at how a player could fail in a game and yet move the story forward in a satisfying way.

Three-Part Series, Part Three: A while back I came up with a specific game mechanic for an RPG. This article is focused on that mechanic, which I refer to as “time paths”. The idea behind them is to facilitate an evolving, unique experience each time you play the game.

Three-Part Series, Epilogue: I wrap my three-part design series with an observation about how slowly game systems evolve, and how we need better prototyping from ambitious designers and a healthier independent infrastructure to change it.

Choice & Consequence: C&C has become the latest-greatest buzz phrase in the marketing of RPGs. The gamers want it and the developers want to say they’re focusing on it. But are they really? We can only figure out if they’re giving it to us by declaring what “it” is. And I theorize that C&C is only supremely effective when the game is designed around a few focused-but-branching choices.

Death & Aging: An exploration on the incorporation of aging, including death, to limit the scope of a single adventure and, theoretically, to encourage re-play.

Setting/Society: Fantasy games are often that: fantasy; escape; simple good-and-evil roles. And I’m fine with that. But it would be interesting to see an occasional game developer take up the challenge of going with very dark elements and tougher choices that expect you to role-play a very different set of moral standards.

Bloodlines – Continued: Although this is part of another series (a rolling review of Vampire: Bloodlines — the Masquerade), it expands on the observation (from my first post, Random Thoughts) that cutscenes steal control away from the player during critical moments while also bringing up how some games wait around for you to do something before time advances.

Dilemmas: A comment from Richard Garriot in an interview inspires this post. I argue that throwing a moral dilemma into the game is great, but you have to give the player closure to any implemented solutions for it to be meaningful — something Garriot misses. Obviously, the puzzle and its solutions should use mechanics the player is familiar with in the game for it to be a rewarding experience.

Model Game: Creating a cinematic, story-focused RPG is difficult because of our expectations on combat and our desire to have lots of it. But using QTEs in an RPG can allow us to create that cinematic role-playing experience, trading quantity of opponents with duration of fights.

Casual RPG: I decided to take a stab at creating a simple RPG in the vein of the casual types of games you might see on Facebook, like Mafia Wars or Castle Age. But better, of course. Much better.

Magic Equipment and Mystery: By removing stats from characters and items and by also providing some randomized effects we create mystery in our games that would provide an interesting counter-balance to the proliferation of numbers-based meta gaming in RPGs. In the post, I explain in greater detail how this would work.

Designing an RPG: Magic Equipment and Mystery

A friend made a post containing a side comment regarding the “detect magic”/”identify magic item” mechanic from D&D. I hate to latch onto a borderline throw-away comment, and to be honest this post isn’t even specifically about that comment — but that’s how inspiration works.

And in this case, the inspiration is that in a lot of old role-playing games, not so much anymore, your character may come across magic items. But you don’t know that they’re special at first because they look like mundane equipment. So you cast “detect magic” to figure out if any items are special and then you cast “identify magic item” to figure out exactly what it does. This mechanic adds (ideally) a layer of mystery and story telling to a system of clear rules.

My deviation from this set-up came when D&D was proclaimed as “bad” (in the ’80s) and my friends and I took to on-the-fly adventuring without dice or rules. When a situation of discrepancy came up, such as when a character wanted to hit another character, I’d often resort to asking them to pick a number between one and ten — and the closer they got to my number, the better the outcome.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that since there’s nothing to verify my numbers, I could do whatever I wanted. That led to me generally ignoring the numbers my friend chose in favor of trying to create a gripping story of success and failures — based more on the story’s flow and my friends’ enjoyment/frustration.

Though I always liked this idea, the advent of computer-based role-playing games took things back in the other direction. It’s really easy for computers to work mathematical formulas, but they are not as well equipped for reading a player’s facial expressions. And, slowly but surely, video games have taken the mystery and randomness away and made the formula more apparent.

To be fair, I don’t think this is a bad thing. It is very much a meta-game that many players, myself included, enjoy. With all the numbers fully disclosed, and all the different ways to create and customize characters, the system itself becomes a challenge against which the player tries to create the most efficient character possible. The player is rewarded not just by defeating an ogre single-handedly, but by dishing out 10x the necessary damage for defeating that ogre.

Still, I’d like to see some developers explore the other side of the balance. True, creating a formula-less system for use in a computer game is as close to impossible as game design gets — but I think there are creative ways to work the system.

Let’s imagine that the player is in the Lord of the Rings universe and they find a short sword with some runes carved into the blade. It hums, it glows, it calls to you — it’s obviously magic. The player finds a loremaster who reveals that the runes say “orc slayer” and talks about an old legend of a famed warrior who used the blade to slay dozens of orcs.

And here’s a side note of my own:

How come, in stories, the legends always have heroes who spent their life fighting orcs and at the end of their careers left a trail of maybe 30 or even 100 dead orcs? When I played through Baldur’s Gate or Oblivion or Fable or Ultima, I swear the body count was close to a thousand and that was in a time period of, at most, a game year — and I’ve killed more than 30 orcs in one encounter in games like Pool of Radiance.

Also, I don’t think my character started adventuring at 18 only to retire at 19 (though they would surely have the money to do so), so the body count would continue to soar.

Yes, I understand that fighting is a game mechanic and, if done right, players want to have fun and do it repeatedly. The day I spend an entire life in a game and kill 30 orcs is probably the day my game character dies of boredom. This is a situation where realism differs from fun and so be it. But regardless, I am amused by the discrepancy — though I would love to explore a way to make an RPG that adds significant weight and thought to killing (something I’ve already lost in Assassin’s Creed 2).

Now the player has the blade and is quite excited. They spot an orc, wield their short sword, and rush into battle. In most video games, if the player discovers that the item is +3 to damage or +1 to hitting their target, they’ll compare the item to what they were previously using and, if it isn’t good enough — legends be damned, they’re tossing the dagger aside or selling it to the nearest merchant. If a normal short sword does 1-6 damage, and you gain a bonus of 3 from the magic in one specific instance — are you going to be excited and swap your weapons for that specific incident when your current weapon already does 4-14 damage?

How do you combat that? As I’ve been saying: mystery!

  • For one, I don’t think you ever tell players how much damage a weapon does nor how much health an opponent has. This will definitely frustrate some players, but I think we’re already seeing some developers take steps in this direction. Fable 3, to name but one example, has eliminated player health to some degree. The screen flashes red when you’re hurt so that you know when to swig a potion. Graphics have improved to such a degree that it’s quite easy to depict an opponent who is wounded and to further differentiate that wounded opponent from an opponent who is mortally wounded. When players have no numbers to dissect, they’re left with trial-and-error: how many hits with this weapon does it take to kill a monster? How long to kill a monster with that weapon? Randomness is an additional filter worth implementing to make this system more mysterious, of course.
  • I think an “orc slayer” sword should feel special when used in combat with orcs. But feeling special is a different story from being powerful — and that gives you possibilities instead of limitations and balancing nightmares. If you’re fighting an orc and your blade flashes a brilliant light as combat starts, that’s exciting. And maybe that’s all you need to make the player proud of their new weapon. If some orcs occasionally cower in fear and refuse to fight back even as they’re butchered, all the better. Maybe even some orcs also glow and seem to writhe in pain or do less damage or die a little more quickly than normal.
  • It’s important to stress that a weapon that seemingly hits more often or seemingly does more damage is a better weapon — even if it doesn’t actually improve your damage or chance to hit. I can think back on instances where a game told me that the weapon was completely normal in every way, but there was something about the weapon that made me really like it and want to use it over theoretically better weaponry. That’s the feeling for which I’m going.
  • If the player comes across this amazing sword that makes them feel special, and seems better than mundane items, players are never going to swap to something else. And that’s no good. You want the player to be excited to use “orc slayer” in a fight with orcs. You want everything to feel special about those encounters. You don’t want the player to find orc slayer five minutes into the game and still be using it in the final encounter. So…
  • Equipment should break. Even magic equipment — though that should be much more rare. Maybe with a normal weapon, every fight after five there’s a 20% chance per encounter your weapon breaks — and with a magic item it’s every fight after twenty there’s a 10% chance. But equipment should break. This encourages players to save special weapons for special or desperate occasions.
  • Players enjoy the near-constant upgrade cycle (finding new and better gear) because it’s a type of character progression. But the upgrade cycle should occasionally take backward steps with, as I said earlier, broken weapons. If a weapon breaks, the player has to rely on a possibly less-than-ideal back-up weapon or their alternative weapon if they’re well prepared. That adds to the story right there.
  • Meanwhile, to keep on the mystery bandwagon, another character may choose to stick with a battered sword over something new-and-shiny because of how amazingly durable the weapon seems to be. If most weapons break after ten fights, a sword that has lasted thirty is going to feel special and the player is going to hold on to it. Or maybe the player will hand off this remarkably durable weapon to a young warrior and become a legend in the process. (I imagine that the game, behind the scenes, tracks notable accomplishments such as weapon age — and then marks the item as special accordingly.)
  • Finally, the game shouldn’t over-encumber characters with magic gear. Maybe it’s not until the last third of the game that the player gets their final set of equipment — the magic equipment of legend, or the items created specifically for your hero by a legendary smith or a smith using a legendary forge. Players might come across the occasional magic items, but I think the system works best if those items are very rare and very specific like the aforementioned “orc slayer”. The player should want to keep it on hand for those instances where orcs are encountered, but otherwise feel free to use their other high-end normal equipment. A lot of the mystery behind magic equipment is muted when the player is inundated with magic.

Games thrive on numbers these days and there is nothing wrong with that. As I said, I enjoy the meta-game aspect. But any time there is an extreme in one direction it makes me wonder about the implementation of the counter to that extreme.

How could a game with no numbers work (and by work I mean be “fun” and “not frustrating” to the player)? This post is a series of thoughts on specific examples of mystery in games with equipment, and so should not be considered an all-inclusive effort on the topic. I’d love to see in a game, or explore in posts, the idea of removing all character attributes and levels and self-awareness of skill proficiency and replacing these things with comparative ratings, i.e. the best tree-chopper in the village, the fastest blade on the coast, or the strongest man this side of Eaventrae — even if you only earned the strong-man title by beating ol’ Jack in an arm-wrestling contest (I ain’t remember a time when ol’ Jack ever lost).

As always, feel free to add other ways that mystery could be implemented or to critique the ideas herein.

Casual RPG

Casual Games

Casual Games

I’ve been playing a lot of the so-called “casual” games on Facebook. I’m enjoying them and it’s got me thinking that if I had the programming and art skills, I’d probably put together a casual RPG. There are a lot of casual RPGs out there, but I think most of them get it wrong. They require too much of a time investment or come off as too complicated at the start, or are ultimately boring. The casual games I’ve come across that are successful, and attract male and female gamers alike, incorporate some very specific ideas that I would focus on in my casual RPG.

So what would my casual RPG look like?

You’d start by crafting an avatar. Pick your smile and your eyes and your hair style and color. Pick your build and skin color and so on. There would be a dozen varieties for each trait at the start, though you could later buy/unlock much more using experience or real money. Once done, name your character and off you go.

I’d start you out in a tiny village. There’d be three buildings. One would be for buying & selling weapons and armor. One would be for training. And one would be an arena. There’d also be an exit from the town to seek adventure.

Casual Games

Casual Games

The Shop

The game would tell you to click on the weapons and armor shop. You’d do so and you’d get some free money for succeeding at the task. You’d also get an achievement — as you will for many tasks throughout the game. Once inside, you’d have the money for a dagger and some leather armor and buy one of each; they’d be auto-equipped. If you clicked on your character, you could edit the appearance of your new equipment — changing the color or picking from a couple designs. Again, you could buy more options with real money.

The shop would also have special items like magic powers or equipment, familiars (a pet), and so forth. You could buy healing potions to heal you while you adventure or magic oils to apply to your sword to make your killing strokes more powerful. And if you bring a pet along, they would help you on your adventures and, of course, you could customize them to great extent.

The shop would have no other equipment available, but as you adventure you’d find parts of guides that would tell a blacksmith how to make additional equipment. You might also stumble across a traveling trader along the way to an adventure, or back from one. You could cash these guides in at the shop and that would further let you buy new equipment.

Casual Games

Casual Games

The Trainer

The second shop is the trainer. He’ll get you new combos to perform, but you need to “learn” the individual moves, first. There might be a 4-hit combo that starts with a slice, follows with a kick, moves on to a back kick before ending with a shield bash. Learn all four individual moves and you can train-and-master that four-hit combo. Then when you watch your character adventure, he’ll occasionally use that routine.

The Arena

The third shop is the arena. This is where you go to earn extra experience and learn some new moves by fighting against strangers. If you’re on-line and playing, to other players you will appear to be in the arena — giving them lots of different characters to face off against. Occasionally, there might be “events” where you can join the arena and fight your way to the top of the standings for special loot.

Adventuring

When you exit the town, at first there would only be one option for a destination — the typical “killing fields” idea where you’d go to fight monsters and get loot and experience. But as you gain levels, perhaps every three or so levels, you would unlock other areas — a cave, an abandoned fort, a dungeon, and so forth. Each area would provide certain collectible items that, if you earned the complete set, would provide you with bonuses.

Casual Games

Casual Games

For example, maybe the first area is the outskirts of an elven village and you’re fighting rabid deer. As a rare reward, you might earn an elven cloak or elven boots or an elven dagger. Get the complete set of elven gear and you gain some small bonus to your character that stays with your character permanently. This would lend in to the social aspect of the game, encouraging you to trade with your friends (which further encourages you to sign them up for the game).

Adventuring would consist of a single screen and show your character fighting, thus allowing for a more casual experience. It might be fun to watch your character at work, but it would be unnecessary. You could safely leave for hours on end and then check back in with your character later.

I would like to incorporate some element that makes you want to watch, at least a little, now and then. For example, maybe there are fighting stances or marching positions that impact how the fights go. Maybe an aggressive stance works great against deer but stumbles against orcs. Or maybe how you move affects whether you trip booby-traps or alert monsters to your presence prematurely. You’d want to watch for a few minutes and tweak it a little to get it just right so your character’s advancement remains smooth.

Gaining Levels, Making Friends

Every kill earns your avatar some experience and/or loot, but he’ll also take damage along the way. As you gain money, you can buy healing potions or other restorative items.

Casual Games

Casual Games

But as you gain levels, you can bring some of your friends along with you — and assign them to specific roles. These roles would provide modifiers to your character, dependent upon their level. For instance, insert someone into the fighter slot and they’ll weaken opponents for you making it easier to kill the monsters. Add a rogue, and traps do less damage or, perhaps, monsters give more loot. Maybe there would be a healer slot that would let you slowly recover and stay out adventuring longer, or a wizard who lets you earn more experience as you fight.

Occasionally, you’d stumble across something new — a tough opponent or a secret cache — and you could send out a call to your friends for help. Or maybe just as a daily routine, you’ll send out a message to each of your friends asking them for a visit. In their game, if they offer to help or visit, they’ll earn some instant experience and loot — further encouraging you to make friends and get other people playing. There would also be times when your friends would pop into your games, helping you in a fight — so that you take less damage or gain more experience; they would gain experience and/or loot in their game, as well. There might even be some areas where, say, a zombie plague is ravaging a small community. Every time you kill a zombie you free one of your friends from the plague.

If at any point you reach 0 health, your character will decide he’s too tired to continue adventuring and will return to town to rest. He’ll recover on his own, but if your friends check in on you they can click on you or offer you gifts to heal you more quickly.

Want to get rich? Want to take this idea? Let’s get working on it! I’m currently available. :p

Model Game…

For all the game-developers’ talk about making a cinematic experience and creating breathing/living worlds, I think Heavy Rain looks most like a true-to-life *interactive* game experience.

It really makes me realize that huge, procedurally-generated worlds are a lot of fun to explore but they don’t necessarily mesh well with story. And while a lot of games create a more linear experience to stress the story, it can come across as detached; people skip through the cutscenes and button-mash through the dialogue to get to the next combat or exploration section. But with something Heavy Rain, you’re creating those cutscenes and dialogues, they’re based on your interactions. You’re driving them. You’re living them.

And all I can think right now is that for as much potential as their engine and game has, this could be the just the beginning. Fahrenheit, for example, sold less than a million copies. Heavy Rain, with a big push from Sony, could quadruple that. And that might be just enough to get other developers looking their way, to establish a new genre and imitators.

Last night while I was drifting to sleep my mind imagined a Heavy Rain-like experience translated to other games (I love video games; shut up!). That’s when I realized it just might be the perfect medium for the game that’s long been stuck in my head.

You see, Quantic Dream is all about the scene (just like movies, they focus on the parts that push the story). For example, I believe it was David Cage (the CEO @ Quantic) who said that he imagined a scene where the character would wake up, look at his girlfriend still in bed, hop in the shower, and then, as he prepared to leave for work, walk into the kitchen to find his girlfriend ready with a fresh pot of coffee. He said he loved the scene but he couldn’t imagine how to put that into a game, let alone make it work. But if you’ve played Fahrenheit, you know he did that and that it did work. And it drew you into the world and made you appreciate and care about the characters.

One of the scenes that’s always played in my head is for a medieval/fantasy heroic adventure game. I imagine a character trudging through the mountains during a winter snow storm. He hears a noise through the biting wind and looks up into the hazy hills and spots the silhouette of some beast perched on an outcrop. The beast leaps down and attacks our hero.

And?

If we’re talking most role-playing games, the hero either squishes it in three seconds – or we just witnessed the opening cutscene leading into a boss fight. The boss fight plays out exactly like the non-boss fight except it lasts much longer because the beast has more health. And the player, depending on how well he min/maxed his character’s build, suffers more damage.

In other words, no matter how cinematic of an experience we create leading into the encounter, most RPGs don’t handle an emotional story experience during game play. How can you fear a monster when you know its stats and your stats and that yours are off-the-charts better, and there’s no fun way for a developer to cheat that into a more fun moment? And besides, most people will have skipped the cutscene or ignored it, only barely aware that a combat is coming – because they’re focused on the upcoming loot.

I’m not trying to argue against those kinds of games. I play them. I love them. And what I’ve seen out of BioWare in regard to Dragon Age: Origins (boss monsters picking you up and throwing you in the midst of a seemingly-turn-based, strategic combat), though maybe just higher levels of polish on that strategic battlefield, makes me really want to play the game repeatedly. But there should be other kinds of games, too.

Sure, the combats in Heavy Rain are all contextual QTE (quick-time events), but they’re way more gripping and exciting, personal moments of immersion. It’s akin to going from a PS2 controller to a Wii controller. The line between immersion and playing a game is diminished. Instead of spamming X, you’re shaking the controller with both hands to match your character’s efforts to use both hands to shake off a choke hold.

Imagine my aforementioned winter scenario. As you travel to the next town through the snowy night, a few thoughts spin around your avatar. Hit the right button and you notice the beast stalking you. You force yourself to settle down and prepare for the coming fight. Or you miss the button and you don’t notice anything different, or you get misleading information which sets you more on edge and makes future actions more difficult. And even hitting the button at the right time is difficult because the cold wears on you, the night is long, you haven’t eaten, and the wind has numbed your soul (unless you ate recently, got good sleep, etc. – i.e. even mundane actions can have rewarding/damaging effects).

The monster drops down and you see a few arrows pop-up on the screen, giving you the option to dodge left or right – leading in to whether you’re stunned and pinned beneath the beast, or rolling to the side, sword drawn. Or maybe, if you’re especially skilled and prepared, you thrust your sword up to catch the beast and enter into the fight with a huge advantage. And that’s just the beginning because this rock-’em-sock-’em fight is going to last for a few minutes and have several breaks in the fighting, too, to build tension.

I’m telling you, you’ll never get a scene like that in Fable or Dragon Age or the Elder Scrolls or Alpha Protocol or even the Age of Decadence (all games I love or will soon love). But watch the walkthrough clips of Heavy Rain and you’ll see a movie-like, dramatic fight scene that you control. Tell me all that stuff with the choke holds, and the gun dropping to the ground and getting kicked just out of reach, and hitting the guy with the tools isn’t cool.

People balk at QTEs, but contextual QTEs, I think, are hands-down better than (or at least an awesome diversion/alternative to) an action RPG where you’re pressing X repeatedly and semi-snoozing through the experience. I’ll give you that they’re not for everyone but to think we have *one* game on the horizon (next two to three years minimum) that is employing them? Criminal. We need a few games out there copying off Quantic Dream and trying similar stuff. It will work. It will sell. It will be good.

I’m often lamenting that numbers ruin good adventure games. And I’ve mentioned that back in high school, in the D&D days, we did away with numbers entirely in order to focus in on a more compelling story. Knowing an orc is no challenge is no fun. But an orc that grabs you by the throat and squeezes is a lot more exciting. Modern RPGs dwell on the numbers obsessively, because they’re simulators, but the graphical fidelity is so high and the options so unlimited that we could hide the numbers in the background and make a real cinematic experience.

There’s so much more to Heavy Rain that I think would translate so well to other games, including the one in my head. I’ve already posted once before on how I’d steal a lot of their ideas to make my own Dexter game. So come on. Great games are literally waiting. The blue print has been laid out. Someone out there, make it happen! Or, as usual, hire me. I’ll do it! 🙂

Designing a Better RPG – Dilemmas

It’s been a while since I’ve posted under the “Designing a Better RPG” topic. So here’s another.

I was reading the series of Richard Garriot interviews at Crispy Gamer and he was talking about the player getting attacked by children. In the comment (part one, page three), he says,

“And what I created was a room with cages in the four corners filled with children, and in the middle of the room was a lever. And if you threw the lever it would open the cages. But the things that actually looked like children were in fact monsters, and the monsters would just come over and attack you. … you don’t have to kill the children: They could reload the room and not pull the lever; they could put the children to sleep and walk out; you could charm the children and make them walk away; they could drop their weapons so they wouldn’t hit them and attack them until they went below a quarter hit points and the kids would run away; they could use a fear spell and make them run away, etc. There are lots of options that don’t involve killing children.”

In theory, I love this idea.

Well, let me back up a step and say that I love morality tests in gaming. It provides depth and meaning and creates a relative scale for your actions. It brings the game and its characters and that setting to life.

And I love the idea that if a beggar asks me for money, it’s not an empty activity. Stuff is happening, both in the game world and behind the scenes. Behind the scenes, maybe, as in Ultima, my compassion is affected by my decision which affects my success in the game. And in the game, maybe the beggar gives me some information as a favor or helps me later in the game in some small way. Shoot, maybe it just changes the number of people who beg from me because they see me as a rich patsy.

Ultima originated this concept and some of my favorite games of today, like Fable or the Witcher or something from BioWare or Obsidian Entertainment have advanced the mechanic.

So while I happily admit I love morality tests in gaming, the above quote bothers me because it’s, as Garriot says, invisible. Too invisible. And without any resolution. You’re not sure if you’re being tested or not. You’re not sure if there’s going to be some impact or not. (And in his example, there is no impact.) And while that is a great way to get at a player’s true colors, it’s also frustrating to the player.

What bothers me is that the other solutions are not implemented. First of all, re-loading is never a solution. That was a throw-away comment to appease his brother. But as to his other solutions, if I’m attacked by children and I cast Sleep, I wonder “what next?” I need to see if it changes anything. And in Ultima, it does not. If I come back 10 hours or 10 days later, the kids are waiting to fight me to the death because they only have two states: in the cell/passive and out of the cell/aggressive.

BioWare committed a similar failing in Baldur’s Gate II. There was a plot where you were attacked by someone who was clearly not in their right mind (I think it was in Nalia’s Keep?). There was a chance that if you Charmed the person it would instantly resolve the scenario – but not always. I think there may have been another solution, like Sleep. Regardless, when the alternative methods of plot resolution don’t even work reliably (in that one instance in the entirety of the game where there is even the possibility) you can’t expect the player to think to ever use that method.

To make it work, we need feedback and closure. Maybe not “you receive 100 experience. You earn 10 good points for avoiding combat,” but something to let us know that the scenario has been completed. For example, in most games the kids “spawn out” of the game world and the lever becomes useless. The encounter cannot be triggered anew. And then later in the game, the kids or someone else thanks you for not killing the children – letting you know that your decisions are relevant.

But there has to be some level of understanding of the mechanics of a puzzle before you can put the player into a puzzle.

You need to first create the dilemma on a smaller scale and show the player how they can behave and what kind of results they can expect. After that, we can put the player in non-obvious scenarios and give them rewards for alternative thinking. And then, if all that goes well, then we can have the player attacked by children and rightly assume the player’s first thought may just be to Charm the children because he worries about the outcome, the world and story – his immersion.

And throughout it all, the results have to be consistent or make sense no matter where the player uses these methods.

Bloodlines – Continued

(today’s post: 750 words)

There are many ways to sub-categorize RPGs, but for the sake of this post I’m going to refer to the commonly-used “linear” and “non-linear” genres.

By linear (since these words are *not* intuitive) I mean games that are story-focused with little emphasis on activities outside the story or deviating from expected solutions. To better aid your understanding here, I’ll use BioWare’s titles as my example. Non-linear titles, sometimes, by some people, referred to as “sandbox” (again, consistency in regard to definition is uncommon), have a story but it can be largely ignored in favor of “running around and having fun”. Bethesda is a great example of that type of game, in my mind. Both have flaws and strengths and, as an equal fan of both (ha! Diplomacy for the win!), I’d love to see each borrow from the other.

I say this to lead into a couple observations on VtMB (Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines), the game I am currently playing – and which we’ll call a linear RPG.

In the game’s opening, you leave your apartment and walk down an alley toward the main street. Before you get there a cutscene steals control from you in order to show you a bloody mess-of-a-man stumbling into his apartment.

I like this and I don’t like it. I like it because it sets up a mystery. Why is he bloody? Who is the man? What’s the importance? It raises curiosity. It sucks you into the story. On the other hand, I dislike it because its passive entertainment. Non-interactive, like a movie. There’s a desire to skip the cutscene and get back to actually *playing* the game.

But it’s a greater failing in a game like Bloodlines because it doesn’t need to be there.

  1. There isn’t a lot to look at when you arrive on the main street. The chance that you’ll spot the guy is pretty high, especially since he’s moving awkwardly and making grunting noises.
  2. There is blood leading to the apartment complex from a poorly-parked car in a nearby lot. If you miss the guy entering his apartment, you’d have to be blind to not notice the mis-parked car and blood.
  3. In your apartment, where the game starts, you have a laptop. In your e-mail account, you receive a note saying to meet [the bloody guy] in his apartment – so you knew you had to go there eventually, anyway.
  4. The game doesn’t advance until you enter the building and speak to the bloody man.

The only way I think I’d “approve” of the cutscene is if it were based on your character’s Perception skill. At least then, you could tell yourself that the cutscene was a reward for how you created your character.

But the truth is that the game wants to tell its story and it wants to tell it in its way. And that’s sort of the main separation between “pure” linear and non-linear titles.

Another separation is that time often stops in linear games – waiting for you to “trigger” the next jump in time. Back to our apartment scene…

  • You catch up to the bloody guy in his living room. He’s sprawled out on the now blood-soaked couch. He’s hurting. You can offer to call an ambulance but he refuses. Just get him some morphine, he says. That’s all he wants.

So what do you do? You go back to your apartment and check your e-mail again, then wander around the hospital for a while – giving up when you can’t get to/find the morphine. You wander down to the beach and onto the pier to catch the crime scene. Then you head to a club to dance for a while before getting a mission to chase off some Asian guy. You complete the mission and check your e-mail again – only to remember the morphine. But at the hospital you find a couple other items of interest and that distracts you some more.

When you finally get back to the bloody mess, it’s as if 5 minutes have passed – even though your actions would have taken hours, if not days. In other words, the game was kind enough to wait for you. Just try to do that in a game like Oblivion. The guy would be long dead and buried. But again, that’s the difference. In a non-linear game, retrieving morphine is just a side mission. If you miss that the guy went into his apartment, no big deal. If you don’t get him the pills in time, no big deal. He dies. You move on to another mission.

I’m loving Bloodlines as much as I loved Fallout 3 (non-linear). But I think it’d be cool to see RPGs try to hit that middle-ground.

Designing a Better RPG – Setting/Society

(today’s post: 478 words)

(When I posted my first three comments on RPGs, I thought that was it. I’ve written quite a few in all, and now I have another. What can I say? It’s been fun.)

One setting people flock to with RPGs is the medieval setting. It’s high-fantasy, swords and sorcery, princesses and dragons, kings and peasants, and a huge, forested-world filled with mystery.

Here’s what I’m thinking, though. In these games technology may mirror that which was used in the medieval era, but the people are typically more on par with our most enlightened. My question, then, is would you play a game where society was depicted more accurately?

What if…

  • You arrive in a village and slavery is widespread. And not only is it widespread, but there is no quest to “fix” things. Sure, you can free the slaves and kill the slavers – but it won’t resolve the problem or advance society. Every other town you visit will still utilize slavery – and see you as problematic.
  • You are “volunteered” into a local faction of witch-hunters and become aware that members of your group are raping, pillaging, and plundering (I’m going to say it all happens off-screen, of course). And now they’re wondering why you’re not taking part. Or you’re given a holy quest to slay the elderly or immigrants – because, you are told, they are the cause of the recent plague.
  • A man has a seizure but those around think he has become possessed and want you to starve him for 30 days to starve the demon. Or one of your companions takes some serious damage in a fight – a broken arm – and the local lord, in order to thank you for your bravery, offers to perform a blood-letting or skull-drilling in order to speed up the healing process. Or maybe sacrifice a virgin. He says he knows you will not sully this great gift with a disrespectful refusal.

If I could remember my medieval civ course material, I could probably come up with some better examples.

The point is that a lot of this is not politically correct by modern standards. The point is that people play fantasy games to escape such mundane concerns. The point is that people love the romanticism of an idealized, albeit inaccurate, setting. The point is that this is backward and against our better sensibilities.

But…

The point is also that people, in those times, believed they were acting with best interests in mind; they just didn’t know better.

So what if the game followed this standard – and even the “good” route through the game required you to grapple with ignorance? Or embrace it? Would you still play? Would you go against the flow and allow our real world to influence your in-game decisions? Would you try your best to fit in with what’s expected of you? Would you balance the two – performing little acts of progression when it’s “safe”? What if “good” actions resulted in tougher challenges, but earned you a karmic-like reward (i.e. society progressed more rapidly for a short while)? Etc.

Discuss. :p

Designing a Better RPG – Death & Aging

(today’s post: 643 words)

(I honestly am not planning to jump into independent role-playing game development, as I admitted yesterday in my post on Passage, but that doesn’t mean I can’t think about what I would do if I were making a game. I think it’s obvious that this series is a fun hobby for me in its own right.)

One of the things that playing Passage made me realize is that if I were going to make an RPG I’d have to incorporate some type of time limit/aging process.

There are a lot of so-called “hardcore rules” that some RPGs use – such as sleeping or eating requirements. And, most of the time, those rules add little to the game. At best, they’re there as a lazy “drain” – that is, instead of balancing the economy just force the player to constantly buy food and housing. At worst, there is no thought at all given to their implementation. They are there, perhaps, only because the designer think he’s making a more immersive or challenging game – or maybe because the designer played a game where it worked well, but hasn’t given thought as to why it worked.

I think aging not only works in the vision of the RPG I have in my head, but I’ve come to realize it’s likely necessary.

  • For one, my sandbox-style RPG is based upon the idea of time lines. The world itself progresses. Small groups of monsters band together to form large clans – which destroy similarly-burgeoning cities. It only makes sense that time applies across all ements – the character, too.
  • For another, there is the idea of replayability. Consider the amount of potential discovery there is in a world where you can only see so much of it on any given playthrough. If you can see it all on the first go-around, why play again?
  • For a third, I think time limits, as suggested in Passage, come with all sorts of inherent motivations. In any given RPG, I’m trying to resolve every plot. Faced with a time limit, I’m going to focus on what I consider important to my character. That could mean a lot of different things, but it certainly impacts my choices.
  • I like the idea of assigning a random starting age to your character. At 15, he has a head start on disrupting (or taking over) that band of ogres that may eventually destroy our city. Maybe a more wise, well-rounded hero doesn’t leave the nest until he’s in his 20s – well after the wheels of motion are moving to destroy the town. Characters can become legendary for one significant accomplishment or a long life filled with them.

Of course, these lead to the natural question of “how much time is enough?” If the game ends just as you’re getting lost in enjoying the world, you’re angry. If your character dies of old age before you can rescue the one princess you set out to save and marry, you never play the game again. But equate a life span to a play session, and it feels natural. Sit down for an afternoon, create a character, play it through, and try again tomorrow.

Getting killed by trolls doesn’t sting as badly if that death only represents a small investment of time.

Additionally, setting time limits actually helps me-the-designer acknowledge scope.

If I were making this game on my own or with a small pool of volunteers, I have to make a smaller game. I’d also have to worry about game size if I wanted people to play it more than once (most people aren’t going to play a 45-hour game more than once; most people won’t even finish a game longer than that). And if I’m implementing crazy-complex-scripted-but-alterable time lines, I’m going to have to minimize world size.

When you’re looking at something from this high up, you shouldn’t micromanage the little details. But for a point of reference, not knowing even the basics of this “game”, I think I like the idea of starting with a life span of 4-5 hours (with a potential range of 2-12 hours). You could play it all in one shot or quit and resume that game later (no save & reload, though!).

Thoughts?

Designing a Better RPG – Choice & Consequence

(today’s post: 482 words.)

(Time for another entry into the Designing a Better RPG series!)

I’m starting to think that my definition of “choice & consequence” is different from everyone else’s. Are my standards too high? When I see “C&C” (not the music factory) touted as a bullet point on a video game, I think it means that there will be “consequences” to my “choices”.

Not to pick on the Witcher, a good game I am definitely enjoying, but what I often find is that while there is choice – a lot of good, morally ambiguous choice (another rarity in gaming) – there is, unfortunately, little consequence. And the consequence we get is of little significance.

If I’ve made peace with Team A, I know that when I get to the next plot obstacle I’ll find Team B guarding it. But if I make peace with Team B? You guessed it. Team A plays the bad guys. That’s not really “C&C” in my mind. If the outcome is essentially the same, regardless of the decision I make, then you may as well not even give me a decision. Right?

Granted, I am not done with the Witcher. Not even close. Decisions I have already made could have drastic repercussions down the road. But this is how it seems so far. And I’m not expecting anything different in this respect down the road. (Though I am hopeful. I’ll update this if anything changes.)

“OK, Mr. Nitpicker,” I hear you saying. You’re telling me “it’s oh-so-easy to criticize,” so you “want to hear something constructive.” You “want some ideas.” You “want to know where C&C has worked.” First and foremost, Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy)! But that’s a game *built* around C&C. Haven’t played it? Want an example of C&C from the game? Don’t mind massive spoilers? Well, I’ll give you one major spoiler.

*major spoiler!* The opening scene of the game features you waking up at a crime scene and it’s pretty obvious you are the prime suspect. You have a few minutes to decide what to do. Do you clean up the blood? Hide the body? Wash up? Run out the back door? Return to your seat, casually pay your bill, and leave? There are so many ways to get through that scene. And then, later in the game, you play a detective who has to work with the evidence that *you the criminal* left behind. If you are one of those perfectionists who has to get everything just right, and you re-load one hundred times to make sure you had the perfectly-clean crime scene, you’re going to be cursing yourself later on. Brilliant! That’s C&C, at its best. *end major spoiler*

I’d love to see this kind of stuff more often in role-playing games. And I’d love to see it more thoughtfully implemented when it is used. But what do you think? Can it work? Have there been games to use it well? Other related thoughts? Fire ’em at me!

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.