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Fine-tuning the balance of sandbox and RPG in Dragon Quest Builders

November 15, 2016 | By Alan Bradley

November 15, 2016 | By Alan Bradley
More: Console/PC, Design, Video

Dragon Quest Builders, released last month on PlayStation 3, 4, and Vita, is Square Enix’s bold foray into the crafting and building genre, and a surprisingly novel attempt to find a happy medium between the linear storyline of a venerable RPG franchise and the open world sandbox gameplay of Minecraft.

The game puts players into a fantasy realm in which they are the only person with the the power to build and create. Players must take advantage of this hero’s unique power to harvest the charming, blocky world and craft buildings, weapons, and items to enlist allies and fend off the powers of darkness. 

According to producer Noriyoshi Fujimoto, it was this central challenge that provided the seed that spawned Dragon Quest Builders.

“The project got its start because our team found the building and survival elements in the sandbox genre to be really fun, and we wanted to make a game containing those elements," producer Noriyoshi Fujimoto. "However, those types of games often lack overall objectives, and some players aren’t sure what they should be doing, which results in the misconception that the genre is difficult.”

For most of the team, managing the unique challenges presented by an open world sandbox was a first. Aside from some veteran leadership (which included designer Yuji Horii, illustrator Akira Toriyama, and composer Koichi Sugiyama who have been involved in the franchise across its entire 30 year history), much of the staff working on Dragon Quest Builders was drawn from the Final Fantasy XIV team and had never worked on a Dragon Quest games. “There were very few, if any, staff who'd worked on building/survival games, since there are few titles of that genre developed in Japan,” says Fujimoto.

The team focused on melding a sandbox world with a story that would ensure that there were always clear objectives. It’s a challenging combination that others have attempted without great success, and Fujimoto quickly learned how fraught with difficulty executing on their ambition would be.

The issue, the team discovered, was that if they allotted too much power and freedom to players, the next story objective might be impossible to complete.

“For example, let’s say we have story quest #5 that asks the player to get some fruit from point A," says Fujimoto. "However, due to the sandbox nature of the game, there is a possibility that the player destroyed point A before having accepted the quest. There were many cases similar to this in which progress could be blocked by unforeseen circumstances.”

Main progression in the game is tied to finding and activating portals to new realms, where players will find new ores to mine and new monsters to vanquish. If it was possible for players to shatter these elaborate portals with a swing of their pickaxe, travel to new areas would be impossible.

“Too much freedom makes the fusion of RPG and sandbox elements difficult,” Fujimoto opines. “So we had to place some restrictions, while also taking extra care not to make too many balance adjustments for the sake of convenience during development. In our previous example, the problem was resolved by establishing restrictive rules on destroying anything around point A. While this did put some limits on the degree of freedom, we tried to strike a balance by, for example, making quests #3 and #4 void of these types of rules so it didn’t feel too constrictive.”

While areas like the one around the initial town the player founds are inviolable, later quests allow the player more freedom. Instead of approaching a monster-infested tower through the main entrance, for example, you could tunnel beneath it and explode through the floor into a central chamber. Or the player could ride a growing tower of blocks stacked beneath them to slip through a high window, significantly closer to their goal and unmolested by monsters on the lower floors.

Moving into such new and challenging territory meant a tremendous amount of iteration. “We did a lot of trial and error as we tried to get a feel for what we wanted," according to Fujimoto.

"We would create portions of the game and then completely scrap it, over and over again. Half of the development period was spent on the first stage of production, where we tried to hone in on the excitement of building and creating, as well as the unique fun factor that stems from the combination of RPG and sandbox elements.”

Fujimoto says one of the key ways to fuse the RPG and crafting elements was to ensure that the game reacted to anything the player created and that these creations were relevant to the story. 

“We didn’t want the completion of a building to mean you were done with it for good, and so we had the villagers start using the buildings that the player built, and even sleep on the beds the player had made for themselves without the player's permission," he says.

Another key pillar to this was to have players use the town they created and its resources that they had uncovered to fight off invading monsters. These “tower defense” missions increase in difficulty as the game progresses, with waves of monsters crashing into the player’s sleepy village from all sides.

These occasional diversions are a good test of the strength of the weapons and armor the player has crafted, and an incentive to build high walls and strong defenses. It’s another way Builders directly motivates players to flex their creativity, challenging them to build defensible strongholds to shield their growing community.

The most important lesson that the development process imparted was that the way to fuse sandbox and RPG is to let players feel like they are building their own personal narrative as well as their own in-game objects. “We wanted players to progress through the story as they build buildings in a way that included enough freedom for them to also create their own path of progression,” says Fujimoto.

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