Focusing Creativity: RPG Genres

By Jordane Thiboust

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:

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:

Narrative and immersion are your keywords; never forget them. 

The Sandbox RPG

One of the most complex and costly subtypes, and thus pretty rare -- is the sandbox RPG, which includes games like Fallout 3 and the Elder Scrolls series. Here, the player is driven by the fact that she can do what she wants, kill what she wants, be what she wants -- and do it all when she wants.

That being said, there is a bit of paradox here; in order to obtain that freedom, and be able to create her own story, the player is willing to tolerate a lot of things that she would absolutely not tolerate in any other subgenre of RPG: immersion breaking bugs, average narrative, a simple combat system, etc.

For that reason, the focus of the production and features are clearly not on the critical path, as in a Narrative RPG, but on everything surrounding it: massive numbers of secondary quests, NPCs, places to visit, dungeons to explore, etc. And almost every single feature needs to support that freedom; some of the most important ingredients of the Sandbox RPG are:

As for the ingredients that should be avoided, or be more limited, here they are:

Freedom is your keyword; never forget it.

The Dungeon Crawler

That subtype is one of the most easily recognizable; games like Torchlight, Dungeon Siege, Diablo, and even Dark Souls are part of it. Once upon a time they were clearly defined as "hack 'n slash," but recently they joined the ever-growing group of RPGs called "action RPGs" (this is an issue; more on this later.)

The main thing driving the player here is, by far, character progression (through statistics, new abilities, or loot). Evolving your character from level 1 to, well, a lot, finding always more powerful loot, acquiring more and more powerful powers -- to kill stronger monsters that will drop better loot, and so on.

They trace their roots in your typical old school Dungeons & Dragons game, where the plot was simply a pretext and context to kill monsters and loot their stuff. Decent graphics and immersion is expected, but above all, the main focus of the production and features should be: loot, combat, a statistics system, an evolution system, a class system, etc. Anything that can make the evolution of the character more thrilling and granular should be considered a priority.

Diablo III

Some essential ingredients to focus on:

A few things to avoid, in my opinion:

Character Progression is your keyword; never forget it.

The Action RPG Problem

The "Action RPG" genre is the current trend in the RPG industry; the issue with it is that contrary to its name, it is not representative of the main experience of the game. Consequently, it can be confusing both for developers and consumers to simply describe an RPG as an "action RPG." Let's take a few games that have all been described as action RPGs as examples:

So all those games have completely different goals for their main experience, and as such would appeal to different type of players, but still they all have been described as action RPGs. That's an issue because action RPG is not a real subgenre; instead, it's simply the current marketing slang for "it is cool to play it on consoles."

In term of mechanics, it usually comes down to one of two things (and sometimes both!):

And that's usually it, which is far from being "experience defining," and that's the risk:

Ever heard someone say, "I bought The Witcher, but it's boring -- there's too much dialog!" or "I bought Diablo, but the story sucks!" or "Damn, why is the main campaign in Skyrim so lackluster?" Well, the reason for this is simple: the people who bought those games didn't realize they were buying a subgenre of RPG that focuses on an experience they don't like. They wanted awesome narration, deep character evolution, and pure action, or maybe more freedom.

And marketing doesn't help with that, as every RPG released nowadays is described as an action RPG.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Of course, there is no doubt that this trend started because marketing needed a way to market "RPGs that are cool to play with a pad." The thing is, in the end, it simply roughly describes what kind of combat you might expect, but not the core experience of the game. And as the trend grows, we can safely expect that in a couple years (if that's not the case already) every RPG will be an action RPG, making the label basically useless.

In the end, it is understandable that marketing a game as an action RPG is sexier than as a "Narrative RPG" or "Sandbox RPG" -- but it's still confusing nonetheless. If you are a developer, don't simply describe your game as an "action RPG," and if you are a consumer, don't simply buy a game because it is called an action RPG; try to understand what the core experience in it is, and see if that's what you want.

The type of combat you have in an RPG does not define your core experience; combat is only a support for that core experience, which is either: story, sandbox, or character evolution.

The Breadcrumbs Technique

So now you have your main experience nailed. You know what you are aiming for. Now what? Here is what I suggest:

When you're ready, use the breadcrumbs technique.

What I call the "breadcrumbs technique" is basically representing your main experience, as a trail that the player will want to follow -- like a trail of pebbles or breadcrumbs. If we take the example of a narrative RPG that means that you narrative never stops. Party chatter, cutscenes, dialog, events, etc. The player should be following your narration continually, never giving him a rest.

One of the best and recent examples of this is Mass Effect 3; in that game, there is always something happening, narrative-wise. If you are on a mission, every single room of an area will have something to keep you interested: a console with some info, a quick party chat, a point of view, an event like something exploding, or a ship landing, a cutscene, etc. You go from narrative breadcrumb to narrative breadcrumb, then to a big breadcrumb -- a milestone, like the end of a mission, or a huge event in the story. It is a narrative rollercoaster, and when it stops, that's only because you finished the game.

In a Dungeon Crawler that means ensuring that your character and loot progression is permanent, that there is always something to upgrade, often. New shoes, new pants, slightly better shoes -- wow, a massive upgrade for my sword! -- and so on. Your loot system and random number generator needs most of your attention; they generate a big part of your breadcrumbs and should be carefully tweaked, and that's far from simple to do.

Of course the character evolution itself -- levels, skills, feats, attributes, stats, etc. -- needs attention, too. The more ways for the player to enhance his character, the better, and of course with carefully placed milestones, that generates a bigger feeling of progression for the player once in a while, like a level up. This is without forgetting new challenges to put those hard-earned improvements to the test.

It basically comes down to this: divide your experience in small breadcrumbs and big breadcrumbs, and ensure a constant flow of them for the player to follow, with big breadcrumbs (milestones) appearing once in a while to refresh his focus, and make sure that even secondary things bring him back to the main path.

BioWare and Blizzard typically are very good at this, and if we take the Mass Effect series as an example, it even got better at it with each game:

The Temptation of Mixing Experiences

Be careful to not be tempted to add features from other types of experiences just to "please more people." This most certainly won't work.

Most, if not all, RPGs that have attempted this have been received with mild success, whereas RPGs that solely focused on their main experience and making it the best possible have been very successful.

Trying to add a bit of another type of experience brings a lot of chances to simply damage the coherence of your design and experience, dilute it, and scatter the focus of both your production and your player -- and in every case most certainly won't be enough to satisfy the people who like that type of experience, since there won't be any of the depth and ancillary features needed to support it.

I don't know the secret of success, but the secret of failure is certainly trying to please everyone.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Here are a couple of games which tried to mix and match with mild success.

Don't get me wrong, though; there are great things to take or adapt from every kind of RPG. Every time you do so, however, you have to make sure that what you take is going to support your main experience, and not create the tip of a new one which won't be properly supported, feels incomplete, and thus disappointing -- and risks losing your player's attention and interest in the game.

Do you want to make the best chocolate cake, or the best lemon cake?

Trying to make a cake mixing lemon and chocolate might just end being something that pleases neither the people who like chocolate nor those who like lemon. But maybe there are some ingredients from that lemon cake that could enhance the flavor of your chocolate in your chocolate cake? Then by all means, go for it!

In every case, though, be aware that if you start mixing genres this will require an even stronger, innovative and carefully considered design.

So in conclusion, always clearly define your main experience, never lose it from sight, and ask yourself: Are my breadcrumbs clearly defined? Where are they? Do they appear often enough? Do they stop sometimes? Where are my milestones? If you have secondary quests, objectives or features, are they somehow tied to the main path, bringing the player back to it gently?

We've all had those moments where you start an RPG and, after a while, you stop playing it and never finish it, and you can't really put your finger on the exact reason. You are just "not into it anymore."

Usually the reason is that the breadcrumbs stopped, or that the experience as a whole was not focused enough. Ensuring that your main experience, what drives your player, never stops and that they go from a series of small tastes of that experience, to big dishes regularly until they are satiated, will go a long way to help you create a successful RPG of any kind. That being said, you will quickly notice that it is easier said than done, so good luck!

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