My Dream CRPG

 In Design Lesson, Games, Uncategorized

I’ve just finished playing Fallout 3 and I’ve been thinking about what did and didn’t work for me. I’m not sure if I’ll post a review since others have already covered it quite comprehensively. So I thought I’d ask a different question.

In reviews we often focus on the things that a game does wrong. I wanted to avoid that path and concentrate on the things that are right. So I ask myself the question, “If you had your dream CRPG, combining all the best bits of every game you’d played before, what would it include?” I want to stick to things that we already know can be done, rather than pie-in-the-sky “wouldn’t it be nice…” features.

Here’s a few ideas I’ve come up with so far. If you have any other suggestions, I’d like to hear them.

Baldur’s Gate II: Sympathetic companions who add to the story

In BG2 (and possibly in BG1, but I don’t remember back that far) you travelled with a party of characters whom you picked up throughout your travels. In itself, that is nothing special, but the interesting part for me was that they weren’t just extra muscle, they actually interacted with you, with each other and with other NPCs throughout the adventure.

This made choosing your companions much more interesting. It wasn’t just a matter of filling each of the slots (“magic user – check, healer – check…”), it was also about choosing characters you got on with and who got on with each other. At one stage in my adventure I dumped my druid because was bickering too much with my mage. (I kept the mage because she was pretty and had been responding to my flirtation (which is probably why the druid was moody)).

I include “sympathetic” in my heading for good reason. Neverwinternights tried to do this, but all the companions were so annoying and petulant and argued so much that I resented having to travel with them at all.

Oblivion: Skills that develop as you use them.

A classic problem with RPGs is skill development. How do a player’s skills improve? The standard mechanism is XP, which is typically gained by killing stuff. You can also get it for completing quests, but the bulk of the XP in any game is earned by killing monsters.

This mechanism is a little unsatisfying for those of use who like to play non-combat characters. A thief who sneaks past a monster and steals its treasure rarely gets as much XP as he would by killing it. So the main way of advancing your sneaking (or healing, or climbing…) ability is by fighting. This is breaks immersion. The game claims to support one mode of play (stealth) but inevitably forces the player to use another (combat).

Oblivion tried to do something different. Skills improve by using them. So your sneak skill improves the more that you sneak and your combat skill improves the more that you fight. Experience in one is not transferrable to the other.

Now I’m not saying Oblivion did this perfectly. It was too easy to improve some skills (most notably jumping) with little risk by just using them repetitively (jumping all over town), but this isn’t a problem that is new for Oblivion. In combat it is called ‘farming’ — the repetitive killing of easy monsters to accumulate XP. In most RPGs it is counteracted by a limited supply of monsters – once you kill a monster and get its XP it goes away. Perhaps a similar solution could be created for other skills.

Arcanum, Fallout 3: Junk and Schematics

Many RPG worlds seem to be overly filled with treasure. I remember looking through every box and barrel in Faerûn for the coins and jewels that the citizens liked to hide. While this makes the world less empty, it is quite weird and eventually annoying. Strategically you know that you really ought to go through all those boxes, but it isn’t much fun.

Arcanum was the first RPG I encountered which filled all those boxes and barrels with actual rubbish, rags and scrap and other junk. And after a while you began to learn which containers would have valuable stuff and which wouldn’t. Importantly, the game was loyal to the distinction, so you could confidently ignore the rubbish bins without the fear that you wear missing a hidden treasure. Fallout 3 carried this over with its lockers, grey boxes and toolkits. Each could be trusted to contain only certain kinds of stuff. A further improvement in FO3 is that you can tell if a box is empty at a glance, without having to open it. The slight unrealism is offset by the amount of time saved.

On its own this mass of junk adds character to places in the game but is of little strategic interest, until you find schematics. These plans allow you to craft new items (mostly unusual weapons) out of the miscellaneous junk you’ve collected. In FO3 I was very fond of the Nuka Grenade schematic. Mix a can of Nuka Cola Quantum, a bottle of turps and some soap powder together in a tin can, and you have a lovely high-power grenade. Nuka Cola Quantum was pretty rare, but the other ingredients were all over. I kept a locker full of turps and washing powder (raided from a local supermarket) and searched every vending machine I could find to increase my arsenal.

Importantly, the things you create with schematics aren’t necessarily the most powerful weapons in the game, but they have character and the fact that you made them yourself provides a feeling of creative expression which is much more interesting than merely buying a better gun in a store. This feeling could be even stronger if there was some way to actually invent new combinations of your own.

So the combination of junk and schematics not only solves a problem with realism but also introduces a new opportunity for creative fun. A very clever achievement.

And many more…

I could go on, but this post has got long enough already. Instead I invite you to make any suggestions. What parts of an existing game would you like to see included in your Ideal RPG?

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Showing 4 comments
  • Pete S

    “but they have character and the fact that you made them yourself provides a feeling of creative expression which is much more interesting than merely buying a better gun in a store.”

    Hmm, thanks for quantifying a topic that feels near to my heart. I always like trying to use crafting systems to build my gear, but if you asked me why I would’ve offered only a blank stare in response.

    Creative expression feels pretty good on the virtual tongue. But it requires (I think) a good variety to schematics/recipes. If your character needs a sword and you can make exactly 1 kind of sword, then that creative expression goes out the window.

    Just thinking out loud…

    New reader to the blog and am quite enjoying it. Thanks for writing it!

  • Malcolm

    Hey Pete, nice to know someone actually reads my blog.

    Creative expression in a game is a tricky thing to get right. It depends on a number of issues: are you creative choices merely cosmetic or are they going to have effect of the game? If the latter is true, how much importance is going to be placed on making the choices ‘right’?

    For example, it is very frustrating to choose what sound like interesting skills in an RPG only to discover that they are functionally useless in the game. On the other hand, it is very satisfying to put together clever combination that gives you a distinctive character with his own personalised style of play.

  • Malcolm

    A game that had a nice version of the ‘schematic’ thing was Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. It was a ‘Civilisation’ style game, but with an interesting variation. New technologies didn’t just provide new units, they also provided new ‘powers’ that you could add to your old units (at a cost). So you could turn your Space Marines into Amphibious Space Marines, or suchlike (not a real example).

    The game would always offer a bunch of ‘standard’ combinations for the player who wasn’t interested in experimenting, but there were some cool variants to be found if you tried. I never found anything that was unbalancingly powerful, but I did manage to make some special units that fit well with the way I played.

  • A7A

    In diablo 2 they had schematics quite nicely mixed in with the “horadric cube” where you put for example magical weapons (blue) with different crystals and misc items and made them rare (yellow)and at the same time infused them with the properties of the crystals and misc items. Not much character, but combined with the unique and set-weapons there was nothing to complain about. ;P

    As for junk I like the way mass effect solved that “problem”; you actually got weapons from enemies without picking them up. Sure, scavenging may give a sense of desperation to a game which fits quite nicely especially in survival-games such as Stalker, Fallout and Bioshock, but in the end it just bores the hell out of me to open box and box. For this reason I also hate how you have to walk in circles to collect experience after an enemy is defeated in fable 2.

    As for new ideas… I really do wish people asked me more questions in games. Characters are very much like flag posts for quests, or even flag posts for you learning about them. I would like to learn about myself through NPCs. Perhaps a game where the answers you give affect the reality in the game? Or just people who ask me questions without me being sure about the answers and what effects they may have on the characters or the game in general. Pathologic and Knights of old republic 2 did this better than any other games I’ve played.

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