Thursday, January 03, 2008


I'd like to talk a bit about a design concept that doesn't exist yet, as far as I know. It's vaguely related to my last essay, so you'll have a better idea of what I'm talking about if you read that first.

The concept is about restarting challenges in a specific way. I don't know what to call it, exactly - let's call it "reincarnation", unless someone has a better idea. As in "restart, reload, retry, or reincarnate".


In many western RPGs, you get to make your own character(s).

Further character development is functionally on rails. While you could technically give your character some weird new skill, that isn't a very effective use of your points.

Eastern RPGs take the opposite stance, giving you rote characters and allowing you to heavily specialize them over the course of the game.

Basically, these two approaches seem like the Big Two in virtually every kind of game. Decisions are either planning or execution. If your game is heavy on planning, then your important decisions are made outside the "heat of play" - what stats your character should have, which people to bring, what program to run. If your game is heavy on execution, the important decisions are made during play, small adjustments to your course that change the permanent state of the game. Such as what spells to get, or whether to help the biker gang or the nuns.

It's not quite that simple, because (A) it's an axis, not a toggle, and (B) "heat of play" is not a very exact thing to say. For example, buying and equipping armor is execution-level when you are thinking about the "combat stats" game, but it's planning-level when you are thinking about the "combat" game. Actually, the "combat stats" game is the planning level for the combat game.

It's also a little complicated because games offer so many un-choices. For example, classic RPG combat is not full of decisions. The decision as to whether to attack, use magic, block, etc... it's a fake decision. One of them is obviously right in any given situation. Even when a decision is a decision, it's not really important: a few minutes after combat is over, you'll be pretty much fully recovered again. So it's kind of vague.

BUT... overall, when you look at a game from any given angle, you can see that some parts of the game are about planning, and some parts are about execution. That's all there is, right? Planning and execution.

Well, sort of. I mentioned that a game often has "layers". One layer is frequently "planning" for another layer, although the edges might be blurry.

For example, making a character in a western RPG is definitely planning for the rest of the game.

Aaaaaand there's the glitch.

Most games think of this kind of thing in terms of "the rest of the game". Even execution-level decisions frequently affect you for the rest of the game. But "the rest of the game" is a very long time! You're asking the player to make a skill-based decision that will affect the rest of the game... when he has the least skill!

Many players will replay the first five or ten hours of a game over and over, making new characters, trying new approaches. I've played Daggerfall, Morrowind, and Oblivion for over a hundred hours EACH, but I've never even gotten halfway through the main plot because I tend to play the first ten hours dozens of times instead.

Even when you are executing rather than planning, it is frequently in terms of "the rest of the game". When you level up a Final Fantasy character and give them the "summon monkey" spell, that's what they have. You can't change it, you can't take back those points and re-allocate them.

That is, in many ways, part of the charm. If your character is overspecialized in fire magic, he'll have a great time exploring the North Pole, but the marshlands will bury him without a problem. Dealing with weaknesses and strengths is a big part of the game: if you make a stealthy character, you'll have a hard time doing combat even when combat would be easier than stealth.

But this means that the game needs to contain a LOT of polish and deep content for every aspect, because someone who chooses stealth needs to have as much to do as someone who chooses combat! Since the choice is forever, there needs to be alternate content forever. If it ever gets boring, the player will get upset because his character has become boring... and he can't change it.


Let's talk about building houses.

In The Sims, you build a house for your little simmies. Basically, once a house is built, it's prohibitively expensive to significantly change the house (unless you're a cheating bastard). You'll change it here and there, maybe even buy a new house once or twice, but overall, when you build a house, your architectural choices last close to forever.

On the other hand, in Dungeon Keeper and Evil Genius, you build a "house". Okay, a lair. But it serves fundamentally the same purpose, right? Keep your goons happy. Plus, well, killing anything that comes in, preferably in a hilarious fashion.

But these kinds of games do something very unusual. Something that RPGs don't do. They... well, their house-building reincarnates.

Every time you beat a level, your lair is gone. The next level has a new layout, and you have to build a new lair.

The lair-building is very complicated, the very definition of "easy to learn, hard to master". Even after dozens or hundreds of bases, you're never settled into a rut, because each level presents a new set of restrictions. This level has a lot of lava, that level is going to be attacked by dragons, the third level has lawyers that tax you based on your monster levels...

This creates a game that is a lot of fun, even when it isn't perfect. It's like learning to walk, and then being asked to navigate a wide variety of obstacle courses in any way you please.

I choose the term "reincarnation" because this is not simply restarting the game! Every new level is improved not only by your own prior experiences, but also by the new abilities that the game gives you. Now you have access to a new kind of trap, now you can build a helipad...

In its way, it's a bit like playing a good FPS or platformer: every level builds on the previous levels, even though you aren't really stuck with the decisions you made in those previous levels. However, this is not an execution-level thing. This is a planning thing.

When you build a lair, you are building a system that the game will toss challenges at.

In an RPG, the equivalent would be if the game contained 20 five-hour adventures, and you created a new character at the beginning of each... but you got access to different options at each new adventure. So, in the beginning maybe you can be a warrior or a thief. The second level, you learn to be a cleric and a barbarian. Third level, ranger and mage... third level's the ranged challenge, you see.

Obviously, the levels wouldn't be completely separate. The easy way would be to make each new adventure the next generation in the same family. Anything that happens to the village, any treasures you bring home, any NPCs you help or hinder affect the next generation of adventurer.

This "reincarnation" system of design allows you to design a core game, but then allow players to explore it in a way that encourages them to learn and try many different approaches. It allows you to get the best planning-style play... over and over and over!

Fundamentally, this kind of design is the same as classic level-based design... except that you focus on the planning elements rather than the execution elements that are classically central. People have done this kind of thing before, especially in in tactical games. But, as far as I know, nobody's really thought about it explicitly.

What do you think?


Mory said...

What if battles were like RTSs, in that each battle required you to build a new (temporary) base?

Craig Perko said...

Yes, as I said. Tactical games already use this method to some extent.

Ryan said...

A little late to the party on this one I know - but I abhor the practice of only acknowledging the most recent of events that is so prevalent in todays media - plus I only just read the post ;)

I must admit to playing Morrowind, Oblivion and most other 'western' CRPG's in a similar fashion, I'll try out heaps of different combinations that let me see the first part of the game over and over again.

You can see elements of what you're describing in terms of a 'reboot' in some games that are out there that give a passing nod to the CRPG genre: Ultima Online, Guildwars and Fury are the main ones that spring to mind that I've played.

Ultima Online allows the player to forge their character in a direction of their choosing and using skill downturns and locks the character can ensure that they gain ability in the areas that they are now interested in. This is a long drawn out process though, which I find tedious(like the appalling interface and insane learning curve that cannot be surmounted without recourse to other players help or trawling through online help sites). So it misses that nice "OK I've learned how to use these skills lets try something else" that I feel is the core of what I like about your thoughts.

Guildwars allow a character to equip a subset of their spells/skills before heading out into the world. If that set of skills isn't up to the task, simply
'port back to town and try a new set. The quest kindly 'resets' and you go again, maybe even with different players in your group that changes the dynamic even further. The downside here is that you are stuck with your main 'class type' and your limited by your level and how many skills and pieces of equipment you have unlocked. This isn't dissimilar to the dungeonkeeper model though as as you move to the next challenge you get new monsters or room types to add to your arsenal. But you still are basically stuck as the same class (Yes I know you can change the secondary class but that isn't till much much later in the game). From the games I've played I think this comes closest to that reboot your talking about (assuming I haven't missed the point entirely, which isn't unlikely, but be gentle when you let me know) but does miss the mark on the complete reincarnation and having different challenges to face in your new guise.

Fury allows you to pretty much swap out all skills like Guildwars, doesn't have a class system, but still requires you to open up additional skills to use. But its entirely PvP so the game play varies each time (to a certain extent) depending upon who you are facing and their are a large number of skills that are not potent enough to see much use in the heavy players arsenal. Its nice that they let you forge your own character but as you don't know who you'll be facing and what their skill set will be, you just end up trying to optimise your character for the game type you'll be playing so it becomes less and less likely that you'll significantly alter the character unless you swap to a different gametype.

The problem as I see it is the classic idea is that an RPG is about developing the character. To reboot or restart them makes it difficult to do this from a traditional stance. Which is why I liked some of the aspects that I mention above. In particular I felt that Guildwars got a small part of it right, the only thing is that it really didn't change much except the immediate combat gameplay. All the quests and the storyline play out the same way regardless. This is the case in most games, even Oblivion and Morrowind tended to only have binary outcomes, but at least there the way you could achieve those outcomes varied with how you approached each task, at least a little bit.

In some ways the old Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights games helped by giving you a party to play with so you could take control of the one that interested you at the time but they still only let you start with the one character so I tended to only feel attached to that one, especially as advancement options tended to be limited for the other characters.

Sword of the New World lets you create and take into play 3 characters that you can swap between but I didn't find the game play significantly different enough between the 3 to make a difference.

So from where I stand there's been a few attempts in the direction you mention but nothing that gets it right or has the same level of reincarnation that you talk about. At the moment when I need that kind of fix I tend to go for the team first person shooters like Team Fortress or Quake Wars, as even RTS games have a sameness about them nowadays.

Craig Perko said...

Excellent footwork, Ryan!

Sword of the New World, or, as I call it, Granado Espada, is the only MMORPG I like. Even it doesn't give me enough to keep me interested week after week. While it's tactical customizability is awesome, it's still fundamentally a crippled, limited game, like 99% of MMORPGs out there.

Team Fortress II is an interesting point. While it doesn't do what I'm talking about specifically, it does end up having a similar dynamic due to the learning curve and the variation in team-mates and enemies.