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GDC Europe: Obsidian's Five Hard Lessons Of RPG Design
GDC Europe: Obsidian's Five Hard Lessons Of RPG Design
August 17, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

August 17, 2011 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, Design

In a talk at GDC Europe J.E. Sawyer, project director for Obsidian Entertainment (Fallout New Vegas) discussed the "challenges that the RPG industry has faced in adapting from its pen and paper roots."

His concerns were "ways in which we've succeeded" and "ways in which we fail when we don't take player experience into account."

In his view, "RPG developers have often misstepped in understanding why things are not fun for people."

Often, players and reviewers will say that a gameplay mechanic is "pretty good for an RPG. This is a backhanded compliment." Describing it as frustrating, he is perhaps more frustrated with developers than players: "developers think it's okay to have crummy mechanics," he said.

"I think that if you are going to have the player engage in something that's not conversation and story, it should be fun, and I get really frustrated by this."

"We repeat errors over and over again... Because it's a part of what an RPG is," he said. "We ignore established mechanics from other genres... We don't look and see how they did it."

He also pointed out that frequently, games offer gameplay "that really makes players do degenerate tactics... They're working around our dumb design" to get the results they want, such as repeatedly reloading to pass random checks.

Another problem is that "we listen to the vocal players, who in many cases are wrong-headed."

"Fundamentally, we don't consider the player's experience to be more important than the ideas we've had or the expectations" for the genre. Instead, he says, "We have to think about how a person engages the story and goes through it."

Five Hard Lessons

Sawyer outlined five hard lessons that he's learned over the years:

Mechanical chaos is frustrating. RPGs often rely on random number generators, "in part because that is the only way to simulate things in a tabletop environment." However, he said, "In some cases, where you can reload, mechanical chaos is pointless." It also can be frustrating either way.

What you can perceive is the most important thing. Games "often focus on statistics, but we often can't perceive the effects in games." Small stat upgrades don't mean anything to players at all when they can't see the effect.

Conversely, he said he's "implemented broken things in games but players don't notice it," because there's no external statistic reflection.

Strategic failures are the biggest disappointing failures for players. When building a character or a party, "you're making long-term decisions," said Sawyer, "but many RPGs effectively punish you for making bad choices."

The idea of player vs. character is a false dichotomy. Developers with a traditional tabletop background expect players to be roleplaying when they play games. However, he said, "it will be the player doing the action... ultimately games are about the players trying to accomplish a goal." There is a definite question of "how much are we asking the player, and how much are we asking the character."

Good gameplay is better than whatever your ideas or whatever the player's expectations are. Simple and understandable: don't follow genre conventions simply because they exist. Beyond that, "attempting to execute something because you think it's a good idea or players insist it's a good idea doesn't always result in something good."

Breaking It Down

1.) Mechanical chaos -- "randomization as a means to resolve a gameplay conflict" -- is "very frustrating to players," said Sawyer.

Contemporary games which offer FPS-like interfaces still rely on randomized accuracy, which drives players nuts. His own company's Alpha Protocol is one example of this. "No actual human being likes this! You really struggle to get to the point of competence in the game," said Sawyer.

When it comes to randomized lockpicking/hacking/speech/crafting etc., "All it causes is this: 'Yay! I'm gonna reload the game!' There's nothing to prevent me from reloading. Any of these checks where there's something important on the line... It just results in degenerate gameplay behavior."

In short, with this sort of gameplay, gamers have bad experiences "not because they did anything wrong, but the game capriciously decided you fail."

Mass Effect changed its combat from 1 to 2: "Most of the weapons feel a lot better, and what they did was make it feel like a more traditional shooter in many ways," said Sawyer. 

2.) What you perceive in a game is ultimately what matters the most -- Mass Effect had tons of weapons but they were barely differentiated. They had incremental stat differences only.

"What's the chance that a 5 percent difference is going to make you take the enemy down in one fewer hit? If it takes me four shots, but the fourth shot killed him a little more, that doesn't mean anything to me," Sawyer said.

In Alpha Protocol, "The player could get abilities to upgrade their stealth but often they couldn't see the effects in the game," he said. It was widely considered to have a broken stealth system. "It was a cool idea but certain aspects of it didn't feel good because it didn't feedback to the player."

In Dungeon Siege III, Obsidian changed the game so that the AI-controlled companion characters do 25 percent damage and take 25 percent damage. It's an improvement over the characters in Fallout New Vegas because "they're still there and doing something, but you don't have to babysit them and the player still feels like they're doing something."

"Players did not react negatively to it," he said.

3.) Strategic failures feel really bad -- In an extreme example, he mentioned that The Bard's Tale, a 1980s classic, required you to have a bard in your party to progress past a certain point -- something that was not telegraphed by anything but the game's title.

More relevantly, Icewind Dale and Temple of Elemental Evil required the player to create entire parties at the adventure's outset. "The games were tuned for D&D veterans. There are tons of ways you can make strategic errors. There are tons of ways you can make bad parties. What happens is 20 to 30 hours into the game, you can't go any further."

"Yes, the player made the error but we placed a high demand on them," Sawyer said.

In Fallout 1 and 3, specializing in "big guns" was not that useful, as there were few such weapons and they didn't show up early in the game -- neither of which the player could know at the point of character creation. "In Fallout New Vegas, we got rid of the big guns skill and pushed those guns into other gun categories."

"We kept the idea, we wanted the experience, but we didn't want them to have to deal with the weird system," he said.

"I don't see a compelling reason to not" let players re-spec characters that aren't suited to the gameplay design in an RPG, he also added.

4.) Player vs character is a false dichotomy -- "In every game you are expected as a player to use the resources available to you. A player very consciously makes decisions on how to build their character, so really it's about what do you ask the player to do over the course of a game," he said. "You have to be cognizant of what you're demanding of people."

Some games expect the player to manage too many options at once, and often developers argue that this is "dumbing down" the game to reduce them. However, he said, "This isn't about whether an RPG gamer can play twitch gameplay, it's about if a player is asked to manage a lot of stuff you shouldn't ask them to."

"Mental awareness and their ability to engage what's in the game," is something developers need to better pay attention to, said Sawyer.

5.) Summing up the importance of strong gameplay, he said, "The idea is that good gameplay ultimately is what you want to create, because that will produce good experiences for people. If you create a game with bad gameplay that was the result of your idea, and it met player expectations, it's still bad and frustrating."

Never create gameplay mechanics simply because that's "just the way that RPGs are," he cautioned. "If we ignore the lessons that those games [in other genres] teach us then we're really limiting our audience's ability to have fun," he concluded.

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JB Vorderkunz
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These observations are keen and interesting. Using statistical approaches when skill based interactions could serve is pretty lame - but I think that randomization and statistics still have a very important role to play in RPGs and hybrid genres.

I have one criticism though: these points contain some internal contradictions, all based on the fact that players have a plethora of motivations and habits - some of these 'problems' are sources of enjoyment for some player types. Not trying to go all snobbish "Boo to the LCD approach", just sayin'...

Daneel Filimonov
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I agree completely. Perhaps to a "regular" RPG player, most of these points would be valid. But in reality the scope of different types of RPG players (and heck, RPGs themselves)is far wider than we previously thought. Thus, even if some (or many/all) of the problems stated in the article were to be corrected or avoided within a game, it would still not convey the fun that any one particular RPG player group is associated with. In a sense "You can't please everybody".

So although I like the premise of this article, I'd just say "Do what you can to please the audience, but don't overdo it".

Joshua Sterns
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How about releasing games that don't crash, and have a decent frame rate?

That said, really nice read. Allow players to have fun. To accomplish this do not create boring tedious gameplay, and ensure clear communication is always present.

I personally ran into the "I can't progress" problem with Dragon Age II. I wasn't sure how useful certain talents/spells were, and the next thing I know I'm in a boss fight that I just can't win. Same thing happened to me in Diablo II over and over again. It's very annoying that every RPG I play requires research to find the few builds that actually work.

Ian Richard
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I'm seconding JB, though I also believe that the criticism can apply to nearly all the points.

Different player's enjoy different things. I understand that developers don't mean these things to offend with statements like "No actual human being likes randomization!", but I do. I enjoy risks, I enjoy gambling, I enjoy watching things fail just as much as I enjoy succeeding.

Goshdarnit developers... I am people too! I like turn-based games, I like harsh punishments for death, I hate hour long cut scenes and I like random numbers and loads of stats. I know many other people who feel the same way in one way or the other. Yet, many of us feel neglected by this industry because we aren't 18 year old males who enjoy twitch shooters.

There is room in this industry for randomization and there is room for large numbers of skills. It is not bad design to cater to a smaller audience. Plenty of indies are successful because they use a smaller budget and target a niche audience directly. Why is that idea so foreign to the mainstream industry?

Mass Effect 2 bored me to tears. Alpha Protocol amazed and intrigued me. If we learn the "lessons" in those games, I will have nothing left to play.

I'm just saddened to see designers still fighting so strongly for this One-Size fit's all application of design. It's a lazy solution and one that doesn't appeal to my idea of fun.

Christian Nutt
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He actually specified at the beginning of the talk that when he said "nobody likes X" he didn't literally mean it. I didn't bother to include that in the story. Guess I should have. :D

Robert Boyd
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When he says randomization is bad, I think he's talking more about stuff like how in the original Baldur's Gate, you could go into a battle, get absolutely destroyed, reload, use the exact same strategies and win the battle completely unharmed, entirely because you were unlucky with the random number generator the first time and lucky the second time. That kind of randomization is bad because it's frustrating and makes a player's strategy and preparation less important than their luck.

Other forms of randomization like a roguelike's creation of maps and scenarios can be a great asset to a game.

Bart Stewart
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Robert, couldn't exactly the same scenario you described happen in a session of tabletop D&D (on whose rules Baldur's Gate was based)? Was this randomization bad in D&D? Tabletop D&D certainly has never been perfect in any iteration, but I hesitate to tar a critically important part of its design -- and, by extension, the design of BG and similar games.

Modified randomization of the results of individual actions is one way to replace requiring players to actually perform those actions using real strength or dexterity or intelligence. It may not be the "best" substitute (whatever that might be), but that doesn't imply that it's without merit. I would say, for example, that it's better than there being some Perfect Sequence of player actions which, performed correctly, guarantee a win.

Some gamers like that; the fun for them is in attempting to achieve flawless execution of real physical actions -- fighting games are a good example of this. But is that really best for a type of game whose key distinguishing feature is pretending to be some other person whose abilities are significantly different from your own? As long as an RPG is designed so that a character's attributes and skills play a properly-balanced role in the results of in-game actions, some amount of randomization seems to me to be a Good Thing in that it leads to interesting and unpredictable (within reason) outcomes.

I certainly agree that complete randomization would be bad. But who would make such a game and call it an RPG? As long as character abilities and player skill both have some impact on consequences, a reasonable amount of randomization seems actually desirable to me.

If that's what you're saying, then I agree -- just wanted to expand this point a little as it's interesting.

Robert Boyd
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The problem with just importing tabletop RPG conventions wholesale to a computer game is that computer games don't have a DM. Rolling the dice in a tabletop game is just a tool to help the DM & players to roleplay better. The DM can choose to ignore die rolls, not require them, or give players rerolls if the situation so demands (for example, if a player does something especially clever, the DM might just say that they succeed automatically). Unfortunately, a computer program is not as robust so a system that works fine when controlled by humans is a complete mess.

Some randomization is fine and can be beneficial but too much is a problem. Like right now I'm playing the game Avadon which has gameplay mechanics that are obviously inspired by D&D. A character of mine might have an 85% chance to hit with their basic attack that will deal 20-35 points of damage. That level of randomization is fine - you will probably hit the enemy and you have a good guess at about how much damage it will do. Whereas if you had a game where your character's base attack had a 50% chance to hit and it dealt 1-15 points of damage, that's when you start to get into trouble.

Matt Cratty
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Edit - I didn't read your second post and you apparently agree with my own views.

So, I will alter this to simply say I cannot wait until the day when the current design paradigm of "lets make games that cater only to people that are confused by bits of colored string" ends.

Tore Slinning
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Which you must try to play the chances and statistics in your favor, trying different tactics against an overpowering enemy isnt trite, its FUN.

In a decent CRPG implementation of D&D you have stuff like 5-foot-step, trip, and ability to ready for a strike.

Temple of elemental evil and Knights of the chalice ( ) does this wonderfully.

As for roleplay, an easy solution for this is to have the various dialouge check, but the difficulty of the roll will be based on what you answer.

Jennifer Tanner
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When the mechanics get in the way of the fun or the story, it does pull the player out of the game. And no one's goal is to make the player stop and think "I am playing a game, right?" Few people want to reload, sit through the same conversations, fail repeatedly, micromanage everything, but yet we've all been there and done that, seemingly trying to play a game despite itself.

Granted, sometimes it is a lot easier to point and say "Ugh, that just isn't working for me," than to propose how to fix it -- and I would certainly agree that a lot of the time when you have vocal players saying how they'd want to see it fixed, it might not necessarily be advice that the rest of the playerbase would agree with, nor that would actually make things better.

Definitely as things have moved firmly towards consoles, the cries of RPGs being "dumbed down" have continued and increased, but I have to say as a PC and console gamer both, I think RPGs are getting better, more accessible, and more popular as a result. Besides, I truly feel that the heart and soul of RPGs is the story, settings and characters anyway, and it kills me when the gameplay trips up what could otherwise be an awesome title. The gameplay mechanics should enhance things, not hinder them, and I think these five hard lessons illustrate that.

Make the gameplay, tactics, combat, items & inventory systems solid, then use them in creative ways rather than making them a puzzle unto themselves for the player to solve. Too many options, not enough options, or things that don't seem to matter frustrate. And frustrate != fun. And fun is rather the whole point!

Tore Slinning
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Gameplay enhancement should have more depth then the ones you can find on your VCR controls.

Matt Cratty
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If there are really developers out there that feel that RPGs are getting better, it may be time for me to take a serious look at a new career path.

I will agree with more accessible, but that's it.

Brent Gulanowski
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I think what people are saying is that, while it may be fine to have more accessible games that may still be called "RPGs", they 1) are not really the same (for good or ill), and 2) there are plenty of people who still like and want to play the old style of RPG.

The idea that it's an either-or situation is a bit galling. With game studios perpetually chasing after what's popular or trendy, there are a lot of people whose tastes are being neglected. And that's the most important point: there is a wide variety of tastes, and it would be best if everybody got to play the kinds of games they like.

Matt, I think the situation is going to start getting better again. More indies will start experimenting with a wider variety of designs and play styles. There will be different games that address gamist, narrativist and simulationist preferences (and maybe others?), or games which tailor themselves to the player's preference.

I expect there will be a new Renaissance in game design, especially in the RPG space. There is just too much pent up demand and interest for it not to happen. It may take longer than desired, but it will happen.

Matt Cratty
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Interesting article, and from a developer's standpoint, I am largely in agreement. I also like JB's comments very much. And as he stated, my next couple lines aren't intended to be taken as "holier than thou".

As a player, I feel that the fact that the intended audience of RPGs has shifted so drastically that it makes the above discussion almost irrelevant. However, I am very likely a huge minority in this opinion.

Edit: You can wipe out what I wrote and just call this an agreement with Ian above. Amen.

Ricardo Hernandez
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I can see some of the points to an extent but I can't say I can quite agree with some key points I think I am reading. Re-speccing for example- there's a point in forcing the player to think speccing through and use a spec they have on a character on the game. They may fail a few times at a challenge but it's by this perseverance and sense of mastery within what they have that there is a sense of accomplishment. I think liberal re-speccing "cheapens" the ability to spec in the first place.

So taking that to the ultimate conclusion, all characters would have all abilities and you put whatever you want as a player at will any time. I don't think that works. I think a constrained/limited re-spec - something that makes even re speccing by itself a challenge, strategic, earned makes more sense.

Some of the points on random number throwing I think miss the point that variable reinforcement schemes is the most addictive pattern known in human psychology. I think taking that out completely is not a good idea, but I also see the need to be very design conscious where to apply.

I think pretty much everything I would have to say can be summed up in two words: Demon's Souls.

Jeff Beaudoin
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Is the purpose of having a spec for your character to test the player's ability in some way, or to allow them to tailor the game experience to their expectations/what they are having the most fun with?

If it is a test of ability, then you are testing foreknowledge that they have no way to acquire. Arbitrarily choosing what the designer wanted you to is not really a challenge at all, and "cheapens" the entire spec system in your game.

If it is a mechanic to allow them to tailor the experience, then there is no reason to stop them from changing their spec.

Robert Boyd
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Having no respecs as a test of skill would work if the level and rate of customization increases as the game progresses - i.e. the more experience the player has with the game, the more choices the game gives them. Unfortunately, most RPGs do the exact opposite - progress starts out extremely fast early on and slows to a crawl later on making it quite easy to ruin a character early on.

Like take Titan Quest for example (one of my favorite hack & slash RPGs). With each LV-Up, you gain 3 skill points to distribute to improving your stats, unlocking new skills, and upgrading new skills. In the first hour or so, progress is very fast and you generally go from LV1 to LV8. In the next 5-6 hours, you'll probably gain another 10 levels. The next 5-6 hours after that, you'll probably gain another 5-6 levels and so on. Eventually, it reaches a point where you could might spend a couple hours and not gain a single level.

This is the exact opposite of how things should be! Rate of progress should stay the same or even increase as time goes on, not slow down.

Tore Slinning
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How to play an RPG.

Step 1: Choices

First you decide how you want to play, then you must deduce whats the the best starting point to play that character.

Step 2: consequences

The challenge from that point is to survive the game world with what you got and how to reach your short term/long tem goals.

Your characters strength and weaknesses should be clear, and taken to hearth.

Step 3: Choices

Now find out how to improve your build so you can raise your chances and improve the abilities you think will be important.

There will be alot of coulda, woulda, shoulda, but the challenge here is to work with what you got.

Step 4: Goto 2

Rebecca Phoa
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Allowing a player to re-spec is like saying: we give you choice but we also allow you to undo them if you find that whatever you did was in error--just in case.

For certain games such as RPGs where you have a set of rules determining how damage is calculated, what has higher probability of being effective/not as effective; people will always try to find the optimal build. Put points in these few statistics and skills because the Excel spreadsheet told you that the others don't count in the long run (if you don't then you might as well start a new game because the game will crush you or at least it will be more difficult if you made some bum decisions--chain lightning in Dragon Age comes to mind).

Knowing that not everyone does Excel calculations, game developers make it easier to have the re-spec option.

That being said, Deus Ex Human Revolution has no re-spec apparently. But because the game offers a number of gameplay style options and augmentations, the game developers have to likely balance each option to be worthwhile which is just harder to design.

Alpha Protocol had no respec--a bad/good thing. On one hand you wouldn't have trouble if you picked certain skills (Shadow Operative is extremely useful, Chain Shot is almost like hitting an automatic win button), but SMGs are underwhelming at low skill levels so you needed to be fairly dedicated at putting points in SMGs if you want to use them effectively. Hacking/lockpicking is tough; even if you put points in Sabotage because the mini-games are tough to play. So mini-games in AP not only require fine player skill but statistics as well.

Bart Stewart
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> these points contain some internal contradictions, all based on the fact that players have a plethora of motivations and habits

I had the same feeling, particularly to this:

> Some games expect the player to manage too many options at once, and often developers argue that this is "dumbing down" the game to reduce them.

As my cat might say, "Mmwwwwrrrrr?"

I can't think of any developers I've heard complaining that games are being dumbed down for any reason. I've heard plenty of *gamers* say so (especially owners of powerful general computing devices), but developers? No. Just the opposite; it's developers -- sometimes but not always at the direction of publishers -- who have done the dumbing-down from the interestingly deep gameplay that real computers are capable of supporting. Is there one big development studio (the people who have the resources to make big CRPGs) who hasn't publicly genuflected at the altar of "accessibility," i.e., dumbing down these games from their full potential?

This matters because RPGs, filled with *people*, are the one genre in which depth -- richness of expression -- is crucial. The key play experience of a shooter is not enhanced by making it a huge, open world... but I would argue that it does improve an RPG. The key play experience of a 4X or match-three game doesn't require being wrapped within a narrative that is both epic and intimate... but how is an RPG made more enjoyable by dumbing down the story aspect to chase "accessibility?"

To be fair, Sawyer may be thinking more of the presentation of interactable features and not really of the number of such features. I could agree with that emphasis; of course you don't want to perplex your RPG's intended audience. But that's not how Sawyer's comments come across -- he does seem to be promoting the idea of reducing the number of features with which players can interact. (Although he seems to think it's developers who are resisting this advice. Who are these developers? I want to buy their games!)

I'd enjoy seeing further discussion of this. I agree that CRPGs can be improved; I'm just not buying the assertion that cutting depth (if that's really what's being suggested) would be an improvement for this special, people-focused genre.

Dave Endresak
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This was definitely a mixed bag. However, here is the absolutely most unbelievable statement:


The idea of player vs. character is a false dichotomy. Developers with a traditional tabletop background expect players to be roleplaying when they play games. However, he said, "it will be the player doing the action... ultimately games are about the players trying to accomplish a goal." There is a definite question of "how much are we asking the player, and how much are we asking the character."


This is so completely wrong for what an RPG is that it literally stunned me. I have to put some caps in my reply for stress, so please bear with me.

Look, developers, a "role playing game" (i.e., RPG) is about asking a player to PLAY A ROLE OF A CHARACTER! Any time you are introducing real time elements where the results are based on the player's skill but NOT the character's skill, YOU ARE NOT OFFERING A ROLE PLAYING EXPERIENCE!

To understand this simple fact, consider auditioning for a film, play, or similar casting opportunity where you are asked to play the role of a certain character. If you use your own actual skills in the audition, you will not receive the offer to play the role.

The ONLY caveat to this fact is if a character just happens to match your skill set exactly. This is almost irrelevant, though, since a role playing game (and acting of any kind) is about playing roles you don't normally play, and doing activities you do not normally do (and in some cases, would not be able to do because of the fictional context of the game world).

If you look at the market today, or even during the past 10 years or so, you will see that there are pretty much no RPGs offered in gaming. All the products are hybrids of one type of another. The silly aspect of this development is that the result is a product that is limited in any of the elements of the hybrid parts. There are some excellent hybrid games as far as enjoyment is concerned, but as far as RPG elements (or other genres such as puzzle, FPS, action, etc) the products would be far superior (and better categorized) if they focused on the specific elements related to the genre.

If I want to play a puzzle game, I'll play one (Tetris, for example). I don't need some silly puzzle game when I want to play a role playing game. Same with FPS and other genres. There is no need for hybrids, but you can certainly offer them if you have the resources to do so. However, there IS a need for specific genres of games, or rather products that are specialized into a specific genre. What the market has turned into is a mess of hybrid products in a blatant effort to gather profit from as many diverse tastes as possible with each release, but each hybrid product does not satisfy one or more preferences amongst customers/players. It is far better to offer deep, refined experiences in each specific genre that meet the preferences of most players of that genre even if the total unit sales for that specific product are fewer than for a mixed-up hybrid that is far less satisying. Preferences also change day to day, or with some other passage of time, so a player may want to play an excellent RPG one month and switch to an excellent puzzle game the next (or some other genre). Until the industry stops chasing maximum unit sales, developers and publishers will continue to receive many, often conflicting, complaints from pkayers with widely diverse tastes and preferences.

Joshua Sterns
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I completely disagree. I throughly enjoy the combination of genres or hybrid videogames. Limiting a developer to one genre will result in a boring game that suffers from the known issues of said genre. I'd rather have games that takes the best from everything to make an exciting experience. I also think that variety helps with a games pacing, and minimizes the amount of boredom.

If developers were so hell bent on only producing one genre, then we wouldn't have such great games like Bioshock, Batman: AA, Halo, GTA, or Mass Effect.

JB Vorderkunz
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Dave & Joshua - I think you're both right =P

I'd guess that Bart sides (to a greater or lesser degree) with Dave, and I agree with much of what they are saying - but I also agree with Joshua that hybridization can create some unique and substantial results. I think Bart touched on an important point: deep interactive complexity, when properly executed, is one of the most fun and most fundamental experiences available through the medium of digital games.

Jeff's point above, about spec'ing, illustrates the issue - is the complexity meaningful within the context of the game itself, or is it just messy?

Dave Endresak
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Note that your reply only confirms what I have posted. Specifically, hybrid games do not offer the full depth of any particular genre and are a mixed bag regardless of various good offerings (as I stated in my original post). Focusing on maximizing the experiences of a specific genre does not make a game boring. If it did, Tetris would not still be popular, for example, nor would other classic games that are NOT hybrid products. Obviously, a player who only wants hybrid products won't want a product that focuses on a specific genre, but that is not the point of the article, after all.

Everyone should note that the article is about RPGs and the issues with them, and my reply was a very simple clarification of the issues due to the most fundamental element of what defines a "role play" experience of any kind.

Also, I was careful to point out that it is certainly fine to offer hybrid products as long as you have the resources to do so.

The problem, however, is that ALL we have today for so-called "RPGs" are hybrids. There are no actual RPGs on the market today, at least based on walking down the aisles (or scrolling through lists online). Therefore, anyone wishing to play a deep, well developed RPG is out of luck... or a deep, well developed FPS, puzzle game, action, etc.

As long as this is the case, we will never leave the issues behind and a large segment of the market will be dissatisfied. This segment varies depending on what is causing the dissatisfaction based on the specific genre preferred. Instead, only players who prefer hybrids will be satisified. In addition, the potential of any particular genre will remain untapped due to limited time and resources.

Craig Timpany
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Quick! Someone tell the LARPers to stop sword-fighting with their own capabilities! That's not roleplaying. More dice rolls! :-P

Martain Chandler
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People try to play characters according to the archetypes that describe them generally. People also attribute skills that are not in the game to their characters. "I'm smart and evil." "I'm a dumb rock troll" - in games that have no INT stat, for example.

This strikes me as a non-issue - but I'm a dumb rock troll.

Bart Stewart
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As an aside, have you folks noticed that of all types of games, it's RPGs that always seem to engender the greatest number of "What?! I can't believe you think that!" reactions?

Sure, other kinds of games generate lots of debate, but it's usually around mechanics-tweakage. I can't think of another computer game form besides RPGs where lots of very smart and experienced designers can't even agree on what the defining characteristic of the type *is*, much less how to optimize the play experience of these things.

I think that says something important about the RPG as a type of game. I'm not sure what that important thing is, but there must be some remarkable fire behind all the smoke....

Dave Endresak
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I offered a reminder of THE most fundamental element of a role playing game (RPG): actually playing a role. That's it. Until designers keep that in mind, we will continue to have issues with RPGs not actually being RPGs.

Tore Slinning
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And the role is defined by the character which is defined by the mechanics/ruleset.

The RPG genre has allways been about gameplay mechanics, not a DIY adventure.

Sergi Díaz
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That's why a computer RPG is not a real RPG. A pen&paper RPG has NEVER been about gameplay mechanics, it's about story, conflict and characters interaction. Mechanics are the least important part of it.

Tore Slinning
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Excuse me, but its setting and mechanics that differentiate an RPG session from an addicts intervention.

The narrative is tied down to mechanics or else it would just be people sitting in a room telling each other of the awsome things their roles are doing.

Its limitation of what you can do that makes the ingenuity and chances you take in an RPG special.

Sergi Díaz
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Limitation of what you can do starts with common sense, before mechanics (if something can't be done, it simply can't be done. Both in this case and when something is so easy that you always succeed you don't throw dice). Not every RPG is a d&d clone, some of us don't even like that game actually. You need some form of randomness to decide the outcome of some conflicts but that doesn't mean that the role is defined by the mechanics as you've stated or that the mechanics are the most important aspect of an RPG.

And this is drifting too much into an offtopic :P.

Tore Slinning
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You do know there are more PnP RPG's then just D&D dont you?

And again yes, the ROLE must take root in the setting! Or else there is no challenge in the roleplaying part.

If you dont like D&D as an example take burning wheel, there the politicking across player characters are done so by dice( you do have to roleplay and form your arguments).

If you didnt like the outcome that you lost, you just have to do something else to make up for it, like me...i enacted a coup'dtat.

And there is no common sense in the real world( that is, common sense is just an fallacy where you appeal to some all knowing logic, but i digress), much less in RPG's.

Which is why mechanics are there to define the world and the limits and possibilites.

"And this is drifting too much into an offtopic :P. "


Huck Terrister
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"Mechanical Chaos" as he puts it often does work. In a realtime FPS or Baldur's Gate-style environment perhaps not. But look at Fallout, X-Com, and Jagged Alliance where each action allows the player to evaluate probability and risk/reward and it works.

What I think he's referring to mostly is "save-scumming" where a quick save can ruin that risk/reward scenario. Unfortunately I think the industry's best idea for a stand-in (by which I mean simplistic, rote, and eventually infuriatingly repetitive minigames) destroy that and guarantee success just as much as any save-scumming could.

On another note, Player vs Character is probably a false dichotomy most of the time from a player's point of view. However, I think it rests on the shoulders of a cRPG designer to enforce that dichotomy.

Dave Endresak
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It's not a false dichotomy for a role playing player. It is only a false dichotomy for a player who is actually looking for an action game, or FPS, puzzle, etc rather than a game that requires playing a role.

Huck Terrister
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I disagree completely. It is incredibly rare to find a player, even (and perhaps especially) those who play a ton of RPGs, who will say "Well my character is an honorable paladin, so no I'm not going to take the backstab skill even if it would be incredibly beneficial to me"

RPG players tend to be overwhelmingly self-serving and interested in gaming the system as much as possible. There's a reason why the cliche of adventurers bursting into innocent people's homes and stealing all of their health potions exists and there's a reason why games like Ultima 4 have to hold the player back and say "You can do that if you want, but you're not supposed to"

Sergi Díaz
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Then, it seems I'm an "incredibly rare player". And I know a bunch of them.

Jeremy Reaban
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To me, the "randomized accuracy" is the thing that makes something an RPG, as opposed to an action game. Unfortunately, RPGs of today are basically turning into shooters (and shooters are turning into RPGs, like Borderlands). Just like in the 00s, they went from being turn based into basically RTSes.

I mean, that's the thing about an RPG - you are playing someone that isn't you. So your chances of doing stuff shouldn't rely on your own physical abilities, but randomized based on the supposed abilities of the character you are playing.

The other aspect, things like lockpicking, I think it's simply bad adventure design to expect the players to be able to succeed with a random roll without providing other options. Granted, tabletop games have a GM that can improvise. But at the same time, you need to plan ahead more.

As to allowing re-specing, I think that is also something that can be handled in the game with good design. If a party is lacking in one type of aspect, then offer NPCs that would fill the void and allow new strategies.

Chris Roe
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I agree with some of the stuff in the article, but ont he point of RNG issues vs. skills, some things can actually be dealt with design-wise... for example, if the goal is to discourage abusing quicksaves to remove the random factor, restrict where/when the player can save, require minimum values to create temporary statistical impossibilities (which was done in New Vegas), create a penalty for excessive reloading (done in the final areas of NWN2's OC), etc.

As far as "perceived mechanics" goes, IMO a great example of a lack of meaningful RPG mechanics is FO3 as a whole. On the surface, it looks like a pretty extensive charcter building system, but truthfully, if they removed all the of the RPG-elements (take out skills, perks, SPECIAL, etc., cut gear down to the basics of each piece and removed the maintenence factor, removed the in-game economy, etc.), the game plays almost exactly the same as it does with all of that stuff included.

As far as "Strategic failures" goes, it's one thing to make sure the player can't "lock" themselves out of progressing in the game through erroneous script-variable issues, but it's another to neuter the RPG-elements of a game so much that it becomes impossible to fail unless someone plays like a complete buffoon or the player imposes extreme self-inflicted restrictions on themself. I think this is where the RPG genre is suffering the most, and it goes back quite a ways... I want to say right around the time they started releasing everything on both PC and consoles-- at least as far back as KOTOR1. Some time around then, developers decided that limitations/class restrictions, consequences, and failure of any kind are bad, and that's just flat out wrong.

Both of these points are really about accessibility (aka "dumbing things down"). Without getting into too much detail, you can only do so much of this... I can understand simplifying things a bit (NWN2, IMO, is way too busy in the character development department-- too many races, too many classes (both to pick from and allowed on a single character), too much overlap results in focusing too much "ROLL-play" and not enough "ROLE-play"), but if you make things too simple, you run the risk of making the RPG elements meaningless. (see my points above about FO3).

As for Character vs. Player being a false dichotomy, I completely disagree.

I think Dave Endresak hit the nail on the head in his post above... the point of an RPG is supposed to be about what the characters are capable of-- their skill set, abilities, what they know, etc.-- not what the player can do. The player's contribution when playing an RPG is in how they direct the characters within the limitations of said character's knowledge and statistical limitations when presented with scenarios within the context of the game. This is what it means to PLAY a ROLE. This is the reason games like the Baldur's Gate series and FO1/2 are still considered peak benchmarks in the RPG genre despite being 10+ years old.

That said, I can appreciate Joshua Sterns' point that, theoretically, a developer focusing on more than one genre on a single project should yield the best of each genre involved (incidentally, I can't support the stable engine concept enough as well). However, in practice it can (and often does) result in mediocre versions of each genre mashed into the same product, or one genre is heavily made irrelavent due to aspects of another.

For example, consider the FPS-RPG hybrid. Generally speaking, you can't have a great version of both genres put together since they're directly opposed in philosophy-- one is about what the CHARACTER can do, and one is about what the PLAYER can do. By implementing real-time FPS aspects (it's not about the view so much as the mechanics of FPS's), the RPG elements will be made less relavent (Why should I develop combat skills when simple FPS tactics work so well?), and increasing the RPG aspects will take away from the FPS aspects (What? How did I miss even though the end of my gun barrel was in the middle of the guy's back, and he had no clue I was there?).

That's just one type of hybrid though. Others can work well if they're designed correctly. For example, the King's Bounty franchise (RPG-RTS/TBS hybrid) is actually pretty well done. While the quests are pretty straight forward, there's considerable variety in character building, army composition, and play style, and there's enough threat of failure without it being discouraging to keep the challenge there.

Dave Endresak
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I want to add a comment about respeccing since some replies address it.

In my view, it is a good option in a game like Guild Wars. NCSoft and ArenaNet were forced to change their original release design, and the game basically requires being able to respec depending on the party and the specific area being explored.

It's also important for initial plays of any particular area. The only other alternative is to be able to save before an area and restart if your choices are very poor, perhaps even impossible to complete the area.

One could possibly argue that design would eliminate need for respec, but I would say that would not be true for open world games like Guild Wars or Bethesda's games, just as some examples. More linear games could be designed accordingly, and usually are, I think.

Martain Chandler
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"Small stat upgrades don't mean anything to players at all when they can't see the effect." My disagreement:

If you have appropriate metrics about aggregate player deaths, damage taken, dpi, etc etc you can work wonders over the long run buy subtle changes in your combat mechanics.

Also: Be mindful to what you define as "small". I've seen several RPGs that change the effectiveness of an item by less than 1% and players noticed it after about a week. And, of course, sometimes they didn't!