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Feature: Game Design Essentials - 20 RPGs

Feature: Game Design Essentials - 20 RPGs

July 2, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander

In the latest in his popular Game Design Essentials series, which has previously spanned subjects from Atari games through 'mysterious games', 'open world games', 'unusual control schemes' and 'difficult games', writer John Harris examines 10 games from the Western computer RPG (CRPG) tradition and 10 from the Japanese console RPG (JRPG) tradition, to figure out what exactly makes them tick -- and why you should care.

Fittingly, Harris introduces the piece with a discussion of Dungeons & Dragons and the conventions it permanently established, some of which include:

First: the term "role-playing game," it seems, was not used in the original set. A search through the books and supplements of the OD&D game show a good number of uses of the word "role," as a general term for a character played by either a player or the referee, but none for "role-playing game." Neither is it used in any of the supplements.

The earliest published use seems to be either the Holmes version of the game, which slightly predates AD&D, or the last issue of TSR's early publication The Strategic Review, where it's used in describing their shiny upcoming magazine The Dragon. Until then, it seems there may have been no good name for what Dungeons & Dragons was.

This is important because "role-playing game" is one of those terms that is proscriptive in its use. It implies that players, to an extent, personify their characters. D&D arose out of a marriage between wargaming and fantasy fiction, so narrative is in its blood, but early on the most frequent type of adventure was a simple free-form dungeon crawl. If you count OD&D as a role-playing game, then you necessarily have to admit that RPGs don't have to be games of storytelling, or at least not games of "top-down," DM-driven storytelling. (RPGs have always been games of what we might call "storywriting".)

The massive in-depth feature continues through Wizardry and Ultima to Oblivion, which Harris analyzes:

How did something like this become possible? Wouldn't it take millions of man-hours to create all that space, and logic-defying compression techniques to squeeze it onto a CD? Well, no -- not if you create it all through fractal generation techniques, like the game world in space games Elite and Starflight. In other words: they used a pseudo-random generator, seeded with set values tied to each sector of game world, to algorithmically create terrain and contents.

The drawback of that approach, however, is that it's really hard to make interesting random content. Roguelikes are generally best at it (although those space games mentioned are no slouches). As a result, most people only say dull placeholder text, dungeons tend to be fairly lackluster and lacking in design, and because of some bugs in the generator there are a good number of bugs that make playing the game difficult, if not impossible.

Further on, Harris exhaustively evaluates the hefty Final Fantasy legacy:

It's good that Final Fantasy has such strong straight design elements because frankly, as a medium for actual role-playing and realism, it's sorely lacking. Every game system Final Fantasy has introduced has been something purposely counter to the traditional values of role-playing games. Active Time Battle: it's cool and all, but menu selections in real-time? Job system: does it make sense that a high level fighter be able to instantly become a wizard, or a dancer or a chemist, on a whim?

Espers and Materia: what now? Did anyone fantasize about these things before they were built into Final Fantasy? Those are the more defensible elements; let's not even get into "Dressspheres" and "Sphere Grids" and whatever else they're putting spheres into today.

These are just a few of the seminal entries presented in the complete mega-feature on 20 influential RPGs, which is now available to read at Gamasutra (no registration required, please feel free to link to this feature from other websites).

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