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Opinion: 'Obsidian - Life Of The (RPG) Party?'
Opinion: 'Obsidian - Life Of The (RPG) Party?' Exclusive
February 25, 2009 | By Duncan Fyfe

February 25, 2009 | By Duncan Fyfe
More: Console/PC, Columns, Exclusive

[In this opinion piece, writer Duncan Fyfe looks at the unique strengths of KOTOR II/Neverwinter Nights 2 developer Obsidian Entertainment, discussing why the RPG creator has "consistently had the most interesting and forward-thinking ideas about party members and dynamics."]

Last week, weblog Kotaku claimed that more than 20 people lost their jobs when Obsidian Entertainment's Aliens RPG was cancelled. Though not confirmed, no one should have to look for any other reasons why that report was bad news. Selfishly, perhaps, I thought of some anyway.

Very little was ever said about the Aliens RPG, but I'm sure that I would have played it, regardless of whether it now gets completed. I've found that Obsidian Entertainment, compared to every other developer that makes party-based RPGs, has consistently had the most interesting and forward-thinking ideas about party members and dynamics, whether in games that I like (Knights of the Old Republic II) or ones that I don't (Neverwinter Nights 2).

Necessary Weakness

If RPG parties don't seem like a design element fraught with weakness, consider games like Knights or Mass Effect wherein your character faces the greatest conceivable evil in the universe, but isn't allowed to take more than two people along to fight it.

No game fiction has ever made a convincing argument for why the world's biggest hero can't deal with having three guys around at once. Restrictions on party members are a tech limitation, presumably; in the isometric Baldur's Gate days, the limit was five.

Still, there were always more characters available, so why not six? Why not seven? What can they possibly be doing that's more important than saving the world?

I think gamers largely recognize it as an issue of engine capacity or gameplay balance, but that doesn't make it any less of a logical flaw. Whenever the player character meets an exciting new person, he should never have to lamely respond "I'd love to have you on board, but I don't have room."

Party members haven't aged very well conceptually. Games used to present them solely as stat amplifiers and combat assists, but even as they developed voice acting and subplots and became love interests they still seem more often than not like accessories instead of personalities.

Just Waiting Around

If it wasn't so steeped in familiar RPG convention, it would surely seem bizarre that party members, upon their initial meeting with you, sign on to your cause and then hang out inactive at your headquarters forever after you decide they're no good in fights.

Why would anyone be so content to be relegated to the background and how can they afford to put their lives on hold? No hero's that charismatic. Maybe in the future all RPG protagonists should be eccentric billionaires who hire random pedestrians to carry their bags; it would explain a lot.

The closer RPGs approximate our own reality, the less plausible this comes off. It's passable in fantasy worlds where nobody has a job other than tavern owner or blacksmith, but when placed against the near-future military backdrop of BioWare's Mass Effect, certain conventions become absurd.

The commander is required to buy munitions from his subordinates and, on a whim, appoints as his closest advisors and ground team foreign nationals and volunteers who never passed a security check and are happy not getting paid.

If you're in line for a promotion on the good ship Mass Effect, twenty years of service doesn't cut it next to a mysterious alien with a past.

Addressing The Issue

With every game they've made in the last six years, BioWare have moved closer towards a cinematic style of storytelling, an more immediate combat model and away from traditional CRPG artifice. Except they're still encouraging players to accumulate characters as extra abilities and then leave them in the engine room, forgotten.

Obsidian writer/designer Chris Avellone addressed this point ten years ago when he worked at Black Isle Studios. In Planescape: Torment, a disparate cast of characters, in the usual fashion, abandon their everyday routine to support a stern, violent and naked man with more tattoos than memory.

For once, this is remarked upon as odd. In a denouement equivalent to a detective gathering all the murder suspects in the parlour room, the Torment party members' motivations and histories are all revealed to be deeper than originally apparent. Given their specific, tragic circumstances, they had no choice but to follow him when he asked.

Knights of the Old Republic II echoed that scene. One of the game's principal features was its influence system. Players gained influence with their companions by performing actions that they endorsed, which unlocked additional dialogue options.

Avellone works this mechanic into the story, explaining that the main character is in fact so aberrantly charismatic that he exerts a metaphysical influence on people which compels them to do crazy things like join his party and fight on his behalf. He is therefore dangerous and must be stopped.

Manifesting Ideologies

Neverwinter Nights 2 players don't have the same luck. In that game some party members will quit or switch sides based on the level of influence the player has with them.

Most will leave over ideological disagreements, but at least one person will side with the enemy at a critical moment if the player didn't put her in the party enough or give her any cool armour or weapons.

It might not be convincing that she'd want to kill her former friend based on that grievance, but it's a pretty accurate indictment of typical RPG player behaviour. I never selected that character precisely because I did think she was useless, and games have conditioned me to think that she wouldn't have a problem with that.

In Knights II, Obsidian had players take direct control of their supplicants for solo missions, and the full cast featured in their own cutscene-driven subplots.

Neverwinter Nights 2 treated its concluding battle with appropriate gravity by allowing the players control of their entire party. Obsidian granted those secondary characters greater presence with each successive game -- until removing them entirely in their upcoming spy RPG, Alpha Protocol.

Alpha Protocol has one controllable character and no permanent party members. Maybe it's a deliberate change of pace for Obsidian, or maybe it's the best solution of all. Alpha Protocol will certainly be free from deadbeats and hangers-on who admonish you for acts of kindness but will still do whatever you say.

The best way to deal with those plausibility issues is not to invite them into the design in the first place. It'll work, but because it's the safe option. If it marks the beginning of a new approach for Obsidian, then I'll miss the subversion and the experimentation.

Developers can craft a character with a wealth of personal history, trust issues and the potential for an ice-thawing courtship, and they can have them try to kill me for not buying them shoes. I like the second option more.

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Adam Bishop
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Another series of games which has done a good job of dealing with that issue is the Suikoden games. Eventually you gain a castle where all the characters you recruit live, work, and go about their daily lives until called upon in battle. And when truly big battles happen, they don't just hang around: there are large scale military conflicts involving dozens of combatants in every Suikoden game. It strikes a good balance between smaller missions where it makes sense for there only to be four or six people with you, and large scale combats where everyone joins in (even non-combat characters, who provide tactical advice and the like).

Annuity R
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The problem with party RPGs isn't their lack of plausibility but their meaningless character management. It's never satisfying when I spend all this effort upgrading one party member just to get another blank-slate that I have to upgrade from scratch again. I'd rather have one significant attachment to character than 6 loose ones.

It's more powerful to unify all the upgrading into an individual character, and that's what ultimately happens in all party RPGs. How many of you honestly upgraded every party member in Mass Effect? If you play like me, then you just picked 2 or 3 party members AT MOST and focused on them. The others you didn't care about. And even then, I never felt at one with Shepard, even though I wanted to.

To me this suggests that more than 2 party members is redundant... I don't need 6 wheels on my car.

Jake Romigh
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Maybe one solution is to stop making main characters nannies as well as party leaders. A lot of games (Mass Effect included) have the player micromanaging each of his/her teammates. I realize some players enjoy and demand this kind of thing, but other players could say "I've already configured this character with me, I don't want (As Annuity stated) a blank slate to do this all over again." I would wonder how a game would play if all of your party was with you no matter what and you couldn't give them more than battle commands and weapons. They can handle the armor repair, ammo conservation and leveling up according to what the party needs.

Of course, that might be accused of the game playing itself. Tough call. Good article.

[User Banned]
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Gregory Kinneman
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Jake, when you talk about autonomous characters, you reminded me of Fallout 1, where the player has no real control over his party. Sure, they follow him, fight beside him and all that, but their actions are all automated. Further, equipping them is a matter of trading items to them. If you want their guns back later, you need to give them something in exchange for them. If they didn't like the weapon you gave them, they wouldn't use it. While this was annoying when trying to get a powerful party, there was something honest about convincing a mercenary to go along with you, but not having the money to buy his gun from him.

Jeff Beaudoin
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One of the major advantages to having a larger pool of characters than you can actually use is that you get to pick which ones you want without being forced to use the ones you don't.

To me, the trade off of plausibility is worth what you gain from letting the user decide who their party is composed of.


It is better to have 6 wheels to choose from than to be forced to put a couple of flats onto your car.

The real problem is when games force characters into your party that you have ignored up until that point. Final Fantasy games are especially guilty of this, as it is often a chore to set up this new character with all your best Materia/Draw Magic/Espers. And this is made even worse if the characters are not auto leveled as you play. This did happen at the end of NWN2, but could be to your advantage if the party members who betray you were under geared.

Annuity R
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Customizability != number of characters. A good RPG allows players to customize their avatar as much as they want, including different skills/abilities and aesthetics. That's the core of an RPG.

I'd rather have a color picker than 6 swatches of pre-defined colors... to throw out another ridiculous analogy.

You bring up a good point about forcing character use. That's a classic party RPG blunder. Like in Dark Cloud, where character-specific blockages were used, and only certain characters could defeat boss monsters on the critical path.

Jeff Beaudoin
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Sorry, I was referring more to characterization than I was to character development. I agree that the player should be able to advance any character as basically any "class", a la Final Fantasy X or XII. For characterization though, having the choice rather than being saddled with a character whose personality you hate is always better.

Kumar Daryanani
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It would be meaningful to have more characters if each character was more unique. A lot of modern games allow the player to customise all aspects of their character at the detriment of having specialists that excel at one particular thing. While I'm not advocating for a situation like the Dark Cloud reference above, a memorable part of Final Fantasy IV is when the player loses access to all major spellcasting characters and is then made to go through a relatively hard dungeon with limited access to healing spells, and the main character deprived of his most powerful weapons and armor and relegated to a ranged damage/support healer role.

As for out-of-party characters just idling at party HQ, it is possible to make that meaningful too, if those characters were somehow also working towards the party's success indirectly - as Adam Bishop mentioned above, Suikoden is a good example of what to do with lots of characters and a limited party size.

Someone really needs to bring back 4-6 character parties, though.

Kristian Roberts
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There is, of course, another option: dispense with the main character entirely. Drive the story through the whole party. (JRPGs do this all the time). Think of all those lovely D&D session we all played (or still play). The plot was not invested in one player, but in the combination of players. Were I an innovative RPG designer, I would make the formation of the party a central plot item (and make it flexible to account for alignment, play style, etc.). So rather than character creation, you would have party creation (which you would only need to do once - thereby satisfying some of the above griping).

Re: folks waiting at the HQ, why not (as some hve suggested above) have them DO SOMETHING (e.g. build stuff, make guns, procreate, whatever). Seems a rather simple solution to the "problem."

In short, it's not really the party that's the problem, but that its really a party of one, with some add-ons.