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Remodeling RPGs for the New Millennium
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Remodeling RPGs for the New Millennium

January 15, 1999 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Despite working in a truly remarkable medium, one that provides powerful tools for the simulation of fantastic worlds and myriad ways to immerse players in them, many RPG designers these days seem content to recreate the glories of earlier computer games. Worse, many designers seem content to recreate experiences that they (and we, as players) first enjoyed in other media.

As I stated in my recent Soapbox column ("It's ROLE-playing, Stupid!", Game Developer magazine, September 1998), we RPG designers are setting our sights too low. Look at the best RPGs of the last several years. As great as Diablo, Fallout, Daggerfall, and Might & Magic VI are, they really aren't anything that we couldn't have designed ten years ago. Do they represent significant advances over Wasteland or Ultima IV or the Underworld games? And were these older games striving for much more than a recreation of the tabletop role-playing experiences of their creators? It's as if we can't see beyond our early Dungeons & Dragons game experiences. It's time to move beyond simply borrowing game concepts and establish computer RPGs as an independent medium.

Here are some things I won't be doing in this article:

  • I'm not much interested in talking about "good games" or "bad games" or even better games versus worse games. There are plenty of venues for that and this isn't one of them.
  • My intent is not to prescribe -- to tell people what to do. That's best done in bars over beers or online, over ASCII ale. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I don't find some choices superior to others. Obviously, I have my preferences. But my preferences don't invalidate other people's equally valid choices.
  • My intent is not to provide a set of "formal, abstract design tools" (as my respected friend and colleague Doug Church calls them). Such tools are of immense value in evaluating designs or finished games, something I see this as a most especially worthy and necessary endeavor. I sincerely hope to see this endeavor pursued with a vigor in the pages of this magazine, in discussions at CGDC and in the newsgroups devoted to game design. I'll happily participate in discussions of format, abstract design tools. Just not here. Not now.
  • Finally, my intent isn't (totally) to provoke people into telling me how wrong I am about one point or another. Poking the bear is a good and worthwhile thing to do, and there will certainly be some bear-poking before we're through here. But that was the purpose of the Soapbox I wrote back in September. No point repeating myself.

So that's what I won't be doing. What am I going to do?

First and foremost, I want to prod you into thinking a bit more about your design choices. I don't want you to feel comfortable doing what you've done before simply because that's the way you've always done it (or the way Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax did it back in the Bone Ages). It's time to break the cycle, to acknowledge that we're in a rut. Time to think through our design decisions, to know why we're making the choices we make. Time to think through the ramifications of those choices.

My intent with this article is to lay out the abundant variety of choices available to would-be and practicing RPG designers. Only by analyzing the tools that we all use in the creation of our games, discussing the ways in which these tools have been and can be used, and identifying the ramifications of those uses, can we take this genre forward.

Fundamentally, this article is an attempt to identify what it's going to take to be a player in the RPG category in the years to come. I hope to identify the critical elements a game must have to compete and dominate. However, before looking at what it will take to best the RPG competition in 1999 and beyond, it seems reasonable to look (briefly) at where roleplaying is today and how we got here.

So, how did we get to where we are today in RPG development? What are the catalysts for rising public interest and publisher confidence in a category once considered too "nichy" to bother supporting? It all started with the release a few years ago of some surprisingly successful PC RPGs, notably Diablo and Daggerfall. After years of climbing costs, lengthening development cycles and steady, unspectacular sales, these two games broke out of the niche. At the same time, new game consoles appeared, and RPGs have always been a factor in the console market. Throw in the still on-going convergence of the PC and console markets, and roleplaying looks a lot more attractive -- and potentially profitable -- than it has in years.

That's a brief look at why the future looks rosy. But that begs the question, if things are that promising, why does the current crop of RPGs look so old fashioned? To answer that question, we have to look at computer roleplaying's beginnings -- at our earliest inspirations as designers.

The roots of computer roleplaying stretch way back. Some see the genre's beginnings in the make-believe games played by children since time immemorial (with cowboys and indians being the canonical example in the United States). Others point to the re-issue of Tolkein's Lord of the Rings in the '60s as our field's genesis. These games and novels surely influenced us all. But the fact is that none of you reading this article would have jobs were it not for Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, creators of the game "Dungeons & Dragons". A history of D&D would be a distraction here, and others have covered that territory far better than I could. But our debt to the creators of D&D is worth noting here if only to force a recognition of how little we've moved beyond the realm of 20-sided dice, the concept of character class and those incredible core attributes we can all rattle off like a mantra. (Come on, recite them with me: STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, CHA. And if you try to tell me you don't know what those abbreviations stand for, you're either a liar or you should drop this magazine immediately and get back to the latest exciting issue SQL Database Programmers Journal or something.) If you've ever worked on a computer RPG, you've ripped off Arneson and Gygax at some point. Admit it, but don't feel bad about it. As pioneers in the birth and development of a new medium, your borrowings put you in good company.

How do we identify a computer RPG? For the purposes of this article, a computer RPG is a game in which character development and character interaction take precedence over other factors and where each player's experience of the story is determined by individual choice rather than designer fiat. Though broad, this definition clearly eliminates real-time and turn-based puzzle and strategy games (lack of character development and interaction), as well as shooters and platform action games (lack of individual choice). Of greatest importance, this definition eliminates adventure games, which share with the RPG an emphasis on story and character. What adventure games lack - and this is a critical point - is the capability for players to grow and develop their characters, and to affect, if not the outcome of the story, than the way in which the story unfolds. Without both character development and genuine choice placed within a player's control, a game cannot be called a role-playing game, as I choose to define the genre.

Someday, we will concentrate on those aspects of computer RPGs that set them apart and we will leave our paper gaming roots behind. To do so, we have to be more daring in our designs - or, in the terminology of this article, in our selection of design tools. And to select the right tools, we need a better understanding of these tools and how they define the genre.

The term "tool" seems, at first, odd to use in the context of game design. When I use this term, I'm talking about the conventional elements that are sure to appear in any work that defines itself, or is defined, as a computer RPG. Any designer contemplating an RPG must take a stance with regard to all of these tools, even if that stance is to deemphasize one or more of them. What follows are the defining characteristics that must be present in any RPG.


Story RPGs are story driven. There's a reason for talking to or killing people and monsters, a reason to build or destroy things. Unfortunately, though it goes without saying that RPGs must tell a tale, it's unclear whether the quality of that tale has much, if anything, to do with a game's success. One would be hard-pressed to describe the Avatar vs. Guardian (a.k.a. "kill the evil foozle") stories of recent Ultima games as on a par with what we demand from books and movies. Diablo's plot hardly qualifies as compelling. Underworld's story of a hero locked in a dungeon until he can rescue a kidnapped princess hardly qualifies as narrative genius.

Currently, the kinds of stories we can tell seem to be limited by the expressive capabilities of our medium - it's tough to tell a great story when you -can't recreate a young lover's shy smile or allow players to tell a joke rather than bludgeon somebody. Right now, what we do most easily and best is direct, one-on-one conflict (typically combat interactions), a fact that limits our narrative range just a tad. This is not to say we shouldn't strive for greatness in our stories, but we must find greatness in the strength of universal themes and in the ways in which we tell our necessarily simple stories.

Players of RPGs must have some degree of freedom in how they follow the threads of the plot and, in some cases, how the plot resolves itself. They can often pick the order in which they accept quests or even which quests they take and which ones they ignore. Further, how they conduct themselves during a quest, and how they interact with other characters, can alter the course of the story and its outcome.

The first and, arguably, most critical decision RPG developers must make with regard to story is whether to use a branching structure or to tell a story in a more conventional, linear fashion. The temptation is strong simply to say, "We're making a computer game. Computers allow branching in a way and at a level no other medium allows. Of course, we should use a branching structure." This argument, one I've made myself, goes back to the moral imperative to maximize the unique capabilities of the medium and to turn away from the techniques more appropriate to other media. It's perfectly understandable that computer RPG developers would want a branching structure if for no other reason than to differentiate games from books and movies. But let's think through the implications of that decision.

Often, making one choice - picking one branch over another - means that a player can't go back to the branch not chosen. If I may be prescriptive for a moment, if picking a branch does not limit players' later options in some way, the branch is unnecessary and a waste of valuable development time. The illusion of player freedom isn't worth the development price.

However, assuming branching offers real choices (meaning, choices that limit player options even as the player moves forward through the plot), the approach can be worth the cost. Done well, branching can provide a powerful illusion of freedom for players. But, that's all it can provide - an illusion. The reality is that, if we don't put something in the game, on the screen, in the mouths of nonplayer characters (NPCs), it doesn't happen - and no amount of branching can allow players to do things we don't allow them to do. What this means is that the choices available to players solely as a result of branching are false, because eventually players are forced back onto one of the paths that we've created for them.

The first factor to consider when assessing whether branching is appropriate and/or necessary for your project is whether it's worth sinking valuable development resources into the creation of content that many, if not most, players will never see. And bear in mind that you're going to be spending time and money to ensure that the game makes sense regardless of the order in which each player sees each portion of the story. That's a lot of extra flags to set and check and a lot of extra art to create on the off-chance that players will stray from the logical path.

But what about replayability? Doesn't branching encourage players to keep playing a game? My first response would be, "Nah. By the time they finish your 100-hour epic, they're probably looking for The Next New Thing." Only the most zealous players replay games at all, and they're sure to see that a big percentage of their adventure differs not at all on subsequent playthroughs no matter which plot branches they follow.

None of this is to say that branching -isn't worth all that extra effort. Though not vital to success (aesthetic or commercial) it's important that players talk about their experiences playing your RPG and, when they do, it's powerful when their descriptions differ, seemingly based on individual choices. As in all development-oriented decisions, it's important to weigh that power against the cost of achieving it.

It's also important to realize that once you do spend your development dollars on giving the player power over the way in which your story unfolds, that should become the emphasis of your game. You should try to give your players a big, contiguous world to explore and you should let them explore it freely and in wany way they want - even at the expense of character development.

The alternative to branching is to tell a more traditional linear story. But telling a story in the way that stories have always been told isn't the answer. So what are the advantages of telling a linear story and how is this best achieved? Let's start with the biggest and most obvious advantage of the linear narrative, the story itself.

Clearly, you can tell a better story if you don't have to worry about and/or deal with all the ways in which players can screw up your carefully crafted epic narrative. It's generally accepted that a linear story in a game almost inevitably means a more powerful story. Given the cost of achieving the illusory freedom offered by branching storylines, the linear story seems to be a pretty good deal. In addition, depending on how you implement your linear story, you may find it possible to give players some genuine freedom to personalize their experience rather than the illusion of freedom offered by branching narratives and huge worlds to explore.

What I'm getting at is that a linear story must have two characteristics. As the creator of a linear RPG, you must offer the player flexibility within episodes or narrative segments or on a single map or within a single mission. Combine this flexibility with a focus on something other than narrative (such as character development) as the driving principle behind your game, and players won't notice that they're on rails, narratively speaking.

Final Fantasy VII does a wonderful job of allowing you to explore each of its locations with some degree of freedom. Players rarely feel constrained or stuck to a path, even though they are. The reason lies in the game's emphasis on character development. The designers recognized that freedom of movement would eventually interfere with the advancing plot, so they emphasized systems that allow players to create unique alter egos who respond to scripted events in ways that are often within the player's control. This feature allowed them to tell a better story with more interesting characters than would be present in a nonlinear game. I'm not saying that Final Fantasy is necessarily a better game than Daggerfall (a nonlinear game if there ever was one) - just that the designers clearly thought through the implications of the critical design decision to tell a linear story.

Here, as in most design decisions, there's no right or wrong answer. Linear narratives, expertly implemented, are no better or worse than branching narratives implemented equally well. However, it's worth pointing out that perceived freedom is more important than actual freedom. If the players thinks they're in control, it's as good as if they are.

Character Differentiation & Development

RPGs are character-driven. Unlike any other game genre, they rely on differentiated player characters. As such, unique, personal character growth is vital. Players must feel that they control the destiny of their alter egos and that their choices throughout the game result in increasing stature and a growing ability to impact the game world and its denizens.

Every design decision you make when crafting an RPG should first be filtered through the following simple screens:

  • Does each game system, design philosophy, or mission help the character play his or her role more effectively?
  • Does each serve to differentiate one character from another?

If we as game designers allow each player's character to be unique, and thus differentiate each player's experience of the game, we have been successful. To illustrate how important the need to play a role is in role-playing games, and how controversial the subject can be, let me describe some personal experiences. In recent months, I found myself embroiled in a controversy that I never could have imagined. The issue involved the nature of role-playing and character identification.

It occurred at Ion Storm, where I'm currently working on the game Deus Ex. My development team, which is fairly united on role-playing design issues, suddenly found itself on the brink of civil war over whether players should be allowed to name their characters. My original plan had been to give the character a name and a backstory to go along with it. That would allow us to give the character significant relationships and, perhaps most important, a voice.

Half of the team felt that the predetermined name and identity offered too many dramatic advantages to pass up, particularly nowadays when full speech is expected and voice synthesis technology is still in its infancy. The other half of the team was appalled. "If you can't name your character," said one developer, "you're not making an RPG at all. You're making an adventure game." Several people commented that they find it annoying when they are forced to do or say things because the designer thinks their character would do or say that thing. To cut short this debate, I came up with a solution that, I believe, satisfied both camps. (You can tell me how successful my solution was when the game ships!) In any event, this argument about character names shows just how critical player identification with his or her character can be to the success of an RPG.

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