Notes on Designing the Perfect RPG

Random notes, from about 4 years ago, on peterb’s theory of computer role playing games and why designing fun CRPGs is so hard.

“I don’t consider anything the Japanese do to be RPGs. Those are movies with extra special boring parts put in the middle for obsessive-compulsives.”

Why do most RPGs suck?

There are basically 3(*) elements that go into making a computer RPG.

1) Plot.

2) Conversations with non-player characters.

3) Combat mechanics.

4) General interactivity with the world.

(*) I said 3 because it sounds better.

I’ve ordered those elements from most to least important. Designing games where each of these elements is fun requires entirely different skill sets.

Plot

Plot, surprisingly, might be the easiest element to get right. A decent writer can create an interesting plot that isn’t silly. There is a simple test you can apply to determine if the plot sucks:

If a chick in a chainmail bra appears in any of the box cover art or the magazine ads for the game, the plot will suck. I call this the “EverTest”

The only RPG with a truly superb plot in recent years would, in my estimation, be Planescape: Torment. And even that was probably incomprehensible to anyone who didn’t grow up steeped in the minutiae of Dungeons and Dragons. The game suffered from its milieu, rather than flourishing from it.

Conversations

Conversations with non-player characters are tough, also, because you run the risk of confusing the player if you have lots of unrelated stuff. But the benefit of having lots of unrelated stuff is that you can create a more immersive world.

The best game of its type for conversation was Ultima III.

The worst games for conversation (of games that have any at all) are any of the Japanese games. The particular way in which they’re horrible is they have a tendency to design where NPCs either say nothing useful at all or tell you something that directly advances the plot. There seems to be no middle ground.

Combat

Combat mechanics are the easiest element to screw up. This is where the Japanese RPGs both excel and fail, in different ways.

Designers are caught in a conundrum: if the combat mechanics are too simple, the player will not find the game interesting because it will seem too simplistic. But if they are too complex, then the game has the potential to be oh my God I want to die of boredom level boring. (This doesn’t apply for “pure” combat games such as Final Fantasy Tactics. Presumably, anyone who buys a game whose entire raison d’etre is tactical combat knows what they are getting themselves into.)

The formula for determining boredom can be expressed as followed:

time required to resolve combat * number of non-plot-advancing combats = boredom

Probably my favorite way of preventing this formula from increasing the Boredom Quotient is to at a certain point just accept that the player is going to win stupid little combats and resolve them automagically. (To make up for how much bashing I’m doing of Japanese RPGs here, I’ll point out that Earthbound for the SNES did this. Some day I’ll write an article about Earthbound and how it transcended the boundaries of its medium by being self-aware in an almost postmodern way. But not today.) Of course, as a designer you should be asking yourself: if the combat is meaningless or the outcome predetermined, why bother subject the player to it at all? If the answer is simply “to increase R, then you have a fundamental design flaw. One idea I like is the thought that perhaps the enemies will recognize that the player is driving a Sherman tank and that their javelins won’t hurt him much, so maybe they should run away.

Interactivity

A good game lets you do things that have nothing to do with the plot, and has some sort of log or reminder system to allow you to get back on track if you forget what you should be doing. Baldur’s Gate (like all of the Bioware games) is pretty good in this regard. Examples of “bad” include most of the Zelda games(*) (which have “side quests” but no feeling of a world that exists independently of the player), Final Fantasy whatever, and Wizardry for the Apple ][.

(*): These notes were originally written years before Wind Waker, which did a slightly better job, narratively, of making the player feel that they were a part of a world, rather than the world’s reason for being.

Some designers have chosen to interpret “interactive” to mean that the player should be able to break or steal anything. This is indeed one definition, but it’s an unadventurous one. Like “realism” and “immersion”, other loaded terms, interactivity is something that you only want part of the time. You want the exciting, fun things you’d like to do to be interactive. You want the boring, stupid parts of the world to not be interactive. As much as I personally dislike the Grand Theft Auto series of games, they seem to have a sense about this: you’ll never have to stop to pay a toll to use a highway, or put gas in your Ferrari.

Any game that makes you replay a substantial portion of it when you die sucks and the designers are going to hell. Canonical example: all of the Zelda games.

Conclusion

The question of what a CRPG is is itself hotly debated. In the years since Wizardry first codified the D&D-style level-up progression form of play, little new ground has been broken. Most CRPGs are, for the most part, still about wandering around monster infested areas and hitting “fight fight fight parry parry parry” once a round. The future of the CRPG as a genre depends on those pushing past the “show the user a spreadsheet full of numbers that slowly gets bigger over time” model of interaction. The best possible case is probably the disappearance of the genre as a separate recognized class (except among retrogaming fans), and for its best attributes to simply be absorbed by mainstream games, leaving the drudgery, such as inventory management, behind.