Designer Jordane Thiboust, who deeply investigated the RPG genre while in preproduction for a next generation title, shares his hard won insight -- mainly, that mix and match genre-bending isn't the best way to deliver a polished core experience.
The RPG genre is a complex one. I've always known this, but I never realized just how much until recently. Beyond the complexity of the mechanics, the multiple systems, and the narrative, I noticed that what makes the RPG genre complex is focusing on, and nailing, the player experience.
I really started noticing this during the pre-production of a project I was working on. A lot of feedback or suggestions would be misguided because of the misconception that whatever was brought to our my attention was "RPG stuff."
The reason behind this is that the term "RPG" is used to describe lots of games, and it is easy to overlook the fact that some of those games have a completely different goal for their player experience. That's the hardest part; narrowing down that experience, asking yourself "What will drive the player for 30-plus hours?" and sticking to it... Instead of simply adding every RPG feature that you can think of.
For that reason, I found out that it is extremely important to subdivide the RPG genre by the experience of each subgenre and focus on, and then clearly decide, which of those subgenres you are aiming for.
This will drive both your production and the player who buys your games; this will help you focus on what type of features matter and might even be mandatory, and what features have no place in your game and might even have a detrimental impact on it.
Since the term "RPG" is used so loosely, for most people, every RPG game just belongs to the same big pool. They are all simply "RPGs." This is both true and false at the same time; while they are indeed all RPGs, two RPG games can sometimes have a completely different drive for the player.
Using a food analogy, if RPG were cakes, you could indeed say that they are all cakes, but still, there is a pretty big difference in taste between a chocolate cake and a lemon cake, and that's exactly why it is important to know what kind of RPG you are making -- because, as in cooking, this will determine the list of ingredients that you must use and the ones that you probably shouldn't.
So let's start by listing the different RPG subgenres, as well as their main ingredients.
The Narrative RPG
The narrative RPG, the most common type -- games like The Witcher, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age are all part of that subtype. In that genre, the player is driven almost completely by the narration; he wants to enjoy the story, the setting, and the characters. Even for his own character, it is important that he evolves narratively (even more so than mechanically).
What that means is that most of your production effort and features should be focusing on supporting this -- especially for what is usually called the "critical path." That's your main quest, campaign, or whatever you call it, the thing that the player will focus on and will want to finish.
In a Narrative RPG, immersion is critical; everything from combat to navigation, level design, and art direction, should always keep that word in mind: Immersion.
Some of the most critical ingredients for narrative RPGs are as follows:
- Characters should be three dimensional; you should feel like they all have a story to tell and that they are unique in some way -- even if that's simply because they talk in a weird way or have a huge scar on the face.
- Every location should tell a story; this should be a strong focus on the level design side. Why are those monsters here? Why is it shaped like this? Why is it decorated like this? Ask yourself plenty of questions. Even if you don't always give the answer to the player, just defining those answers will help you create immersion.
- Even itemization should help immersion -- Why does that guy drop that sword? Where does it come from?
- Your combat mechanics and the powers displayed should feel coherent with your universe. Ideally, make use of some of the character's powers in dialog and cutscenes. Yes, your healer character can and should be able to heal a wounded NPC in a cutscene.
- Almost everything should feel like it is evolving narratively: the main character, the sidekick characters (if any), the areas the player travels through, the secondary character, and even the "bad guys."
- Your dialog must have multiple answers; avoid doing too much linear dialog, leave the opportunity to the player to create the personality and morality of his character. There is one exception to this, though, and that's if you create a narrative RPG based on a predefined character. The Witcher is one of those, for example; in that case, your goal is to create a portrayal of that character, to let the player become intimate with who that character is. This prevents you from having extremely contrasted choices in terms of personality or morality, as you have to stay close to the original character. But if it's done well, it's also extremely rewarding for the player.
The Witcher 2
There are a few ingredients that should be either avoided, or limited in their complexity, as they could actually dilute your main experience and lose your player's focus on the story. For example:
- Enemies should not respawn, or only do so if it makes sense narratively. Indeed, enemies respawning just for the sake of it, serves only one goal: grinding. You want to avoid this in a good narrative RPG, since if the player starts to grind, that means he is not following your story anymore, and in turn that your narrative has failed to keep him going.
- You don't need a crafting system, but if you really want one or can't avoid having one due to the story -- as in The Witcher -- avoid making it complex, or grinding-oriented. Dragon Age II is a good example of this; its resource nodes only need to be harvested once and that's it, thus completely avoiding the grind, and instead simply giving an incentive for exploration.
- You don't need a very complex character evolution and itemization; you are not Diablo. Even though it is important for your player to feel that he can customize his characters and make them evolve more or less as he wishes, the system should not be too deep or complex. Remember, you want your player to feel driven by your story, not by comparing a new sword every 10 seconds or by thinking for 30 minutes about where to put that next talent point. As for itemization, it is way more important for it to make sense narratively, to have lore attached to it, than to be extremely flexible. Basically, it's better for the player to acquire Excalibur, rather than for the game to drop 20 longswords, all with slightly different stats.
Narrative and immersion are your keywords; never forget them.