Don't mess with RPG's

Cross-posted on

So, based on the great responses from the last article over at gamasutra, people care a lot about RPGs. I've always known this, but the response really drove it home for me. The most important lesson I learned is this:

We all have our own personal definition of what is and isn't an RPG.

So, I won't even try to establish a universal definition for RPG's - I think we all know what kind of games we're talking about in general.  I'll also admit that my personal preferences are towards console-style JRPGs and Tactical RPGs, so my apologies to fans of other sub-genres who feel ignored.  

Let's take me down a peg

When I write blog posts, I aim for short and snappy, so I dispense with equivocating language like "although this isn't always the case" and "there are many exceptions to this rule", etc.  Clearly this was a mistake when writing about as sensitive a topic as RPG's!

"We're not worthy!"

Let's get one thing out front and center: I don't believe I'm the Messiah of RPG design, and Defender's Quest is by no means God's gift to RPG's.  I also make no claims to being "innovative" - I see design as borrowing pre-existing ideas and re-arranging them in an interesting and pleasing fashion to solve a specific problem.  So to all those who have come before me, I salute you.  I'm not here to start a revolution.

Reaching into the mail bag

One of the greatest criticisms I received from the last article was exalting the battle system over the other parts of an RPG, like story and character.

First of all, I think RPG's can downplay or ignore story and still be RPG's - Hack N' Slash and Roguelike games, for instance, are still welcome at my table.  This makes the "RP" in "RPG" a little anachronistic, but we crossed that bridge long ago.  It's common now to call any game that's heavy on management, experience, loot, and leveling up an "RPG."  I think of the term as an evolutionary family tree rather than an exclusive club.

Desktop Dungeon is an awesome mini-RPG

However, I understand  people who say story should be front and center.  Those are the kinds of games I loved as a kid.  So, let me clarify - the battle system isn't the most important system, just the most important system to get right.  Especially if 90% of your time is spent in battle.

How Persona 4 broke my heart

Let's take Persona 4 as an example.  I loved this game.  It was brilliant, innovative, and fascinating.  The artwork was beautiful, I loved the audio design, and the story was awesome.  I especially applaud how they made the story happen over time rather than over space.  In Final Fantasy, the story advances when you get to the next town/castle/dungeon/etc.  In the Persona games, after you've done all your tasks for the day you go to bed, and then something new and exciting happens tomorrow.

What's best about this is that it lets you re-use the same areas without them getting stale.  If time only advances when you arrive at the next town, however, it demands a stream of throw-away locations to drive the plot forward.  In the original Final Fantasy games, you rarely visited the same place more than once (though this improved later in the series).

Of course, "span time, not space" has been done before, so I'll give a nod here to Majora's Mask the Quest for Glory series, and others.

So, Persona 4 - great story, great system.  What's not to like?

The battle system, that's what.  The meta-game is great, but the battles are a drag.  This, I'm sure, is a matter of personal taste, so you might disagree.  My point is that this is one of the best RPG experiences I've ever had and I never finished the game. When I was younger, I could have slogged through it for the sake of the story, but now that I'm married and work full-time I just can't. It's sad that an excellent game should go unfinished because the central system is so boring. Especially when the main appeal for me was story!

So - this is what I mean when I say we have to get the battle system right. Honestly, I think you could make a great RPG without any battle system at all. Otherwise, you had best get it right if you want any of the other central attractions to get the attention they deserve.

Please, think of the children!

Just to be clear - maybe you think Persona 4 was great in every single way. That's fine - my point here is NOT to make you agree with me. My point is that there are a lot of players that consider this kind of battle system a pain and will quit in frustration no matter how awesome the rest of the game is.

With that being said, here are my (personal!) design principles for designing Defender's Quest:

  1. Give me a DENSE experience. Throw away all pointless time-sinks

    I don't have time for 60+ hour epics anymore, especially when story is less than 1% of that, anyway. Can you give me the five best hours and call it even?

    (ZeBoyd's Cthulhu Saves the World and 2D Boy's World of Goo are great examples of this rule in action)

  2. Let me just beat the game if I want.

    Sometimes, I just want to see how it ends. Please don't make watch it on YouTube. RPG's appealed to me as a six-year-old because I couldn't beat action games. By all means, include options for hard-core people, but please include a way to breeze through.

  3. Reward the hard-core with game rewards, not story rewards.

    Lots of games make the secret ending only available after running through hell and killing the devil himself. Although this does make the elite feel awesome (as I did when I beat the secret boss in Cave Story), most players will never see this content. Find something else to reward  hard-core players with, like special loot or secret dungeons - things related to gameplay. Hard core players will appreciate this, and people who are just there for the story won't feel like second-class citizens.

  4. No micro-management

    I think party management is great, and I applaud any inventory system that leads to interesting decisions. However, what's not interesting is sorting my socks for optimum performance. This is a call for two things: first, put more thought into interfaces, and second, if there's a situation where the best choice is obvious, but tedious to do, make the computer do it for me.

  5. If I have to look at a FAQ, the system is broken.
    Persona 4 features a complicated scheme for creating summoned monsters based on collecting and merging tarot cards. I'm not a completionist, and I don't care if I perfectly min/max the system, but the system is so abstract that I'm always afraid of making bad decisions. Again, I'm sure some of you loved this system and had no complaints with it. My point is that non-expert players should be able to grasp enough variables to weigh the options in front of them without consulting an online guide.
There's a million ways to skin a cat, and a just as many ways to design an RPG. This is the path we chose, and we'll go into more detail later about how we plan on living up to our own standards in Defender's Quest. 

Thanks for reading - we'll get into more design details next week, I just felt I owed a full-fledged response to everyone's passionate comments :)

-Lars out