I once told Warren Specter I was convinced I could push forward the genre of computer role-playing games if only I could land a CRPG project to work on. It took me sometime before that actually happened, and, I attest, I did manage to push CRPGs forward - but only very slightly. I'll talk more about that later. First, the inspiration for this post.
Tea Leaves carries an interesting commentary on CRPGs; I'm going to take some extracts and comment on them:
"I don't consider anything the Japanese do to be RPGs. Those are movies with extra special boring parts put in the middle for obsessive-compulsives."
There is a distinct split between Japanese and Western CRPGs. The flaw in most Japanese CRPGs is that they are more concerned in telling their story than in giving the player freedom of expression. The flaw in most Western Japanese CRPGS is that they are more concerned in giving the player freedom of expression than avoiding being total rubbish.
My favourite CRPG thus far is still only a fraction of what I actually want from a CRPG, and that game is Skies of Arcadia. This game annoyed me constantly with its random combats which were repetitive and dull. They served one purpose: to make the game longer. Why should this matter? Because there is an expectation among players that CRPGs will deliver 40 hours of entertainment, and this is an expensive proposition. The only hope of hitting such a target inside a budget that still allows the game to be profitable is to include a repetitive activity - and this is pretty much always combat.
What did I like about Skies? The world was beautiful and fun to explore. The NPCs weren't just cardboard cutouts - in the later game, you could go back and recruit them into your crew. It amazes me that for a game I'm singling out as my favourite CRPG to date, I have so few nice things to say about it.
RPGs are the most popular genre in Japan (at least, they were in the last CESA report I saw). We increasingly suspect that the reason that the Japanese approach works so well is that they can be played in a Type 1 Conqueror or a Type 4 Participant style. This gives them a huge potential audience. Most games don't reach a Type 4 audience - part of the appeal of the Japanese RPG is that, generally speaking, anyone can complete one. Don't underestimate the value of this point - most players do not have the same skills that you (as a person reading a blog on game design) probably have.
Western RPGs usually labour under the weight of such hideously poor mechanics that they can often only be played by H1 and H2 players (i.e. the Hardcore clusters of those who prefer the Type 1 Conqueror play style, or the Type 2 Manager play style). Mostly, this is the fault of Dungeons & Dragons. Although we owe it a debt for being the first RPG, it is still a blight on Western development methodology. Because the one thing that it had going for it as a tabletop RPG was that the basic combat mechanic was very, very simple. It was just that the rest of its rules were torturously complex bespoke solutions. I've been told Tweet's new D20 version is a vast improvement. How could it not be?
Let's return to Peterb's comments:
Why do most RPGs suck?
There are basically 3(*) elements that go into making a computer RPG.
2) Conversations with non-player characters.
3) Combat mechanics.
4) General interactivity with the world.
(*) I said 3 because it sounds better.
I've ordered those elements from most to least important. Designing games where each of these elements is fun requires entirely different skill sets.
This is a fascinating statement... I believe I agree in broad strokes, but I have issues. For a start, putting 'plot' first immediately betrays a bias. We find that those who prefer Type 1 and Type 2 play styles value plot over character - those who prefer Type 3 or Type 4 play style value character over plot. When I think of the many tabletop RPG campaigns I've ran or been involved in, the best have been marked out not by great plots, but by great character interactions. The first Avatar campaign (ran before the first edition was published) was a great example. The party only just held itself together, and conflicts between the characters were utterly absorbing. It helped that the strongest conflicts were between players who liked each other in real life, but whose characters could not get on... The in-fighting between patriarchal tribal assassin Baby Ice Dog and matriarchal mentally unhinged mage Sarakiel was particularly involving. But this was the product of an exceptional group of players. (Avatar is out of print, but it is now available online at the Discordia Incorporated site, which we now host at our website).
I think perhaps when we are considering the story elements of a CRPG, we should consider the narrative, rather than the plot, simply because this term is broader. But I doubt, to be honest, that we should value this above all else. Surely, the absolute top element in a CRPG should be minimising the barriers to play? A game with a dynamite story that was completely unplayable would not survive on its narrative alone.
Next, I want to consider the idea that combat mechanics are an essential element of CRPGs. That's quite a claim! It suggests that you can't have a CRPG without combat, and I don't believe that for a second. True, we haven't had many (probably any) CRPGs without it, but I've run tabletop games without combat, and I therefore believe it's possible in a video game. What you need is a repeating activity (or several repeating activities) in order to provide focus to the play - but it needn't be combat. Richard and I are still talking at times about a CRPG in which the central activity is playing poker, for instance.
Peterb's closing comment is as follows:
The future of the CRPG as a genre depends on those pushing past the "show the user a spreadsheet full of numbers that slowly gets bigger over time" model of interaction. The best possible case is probably the disappearance of the genre as a separate recognized class (except among retrogaming fans), and for its best attributes to simply be absorbed by mainstream games, leaving the drudgery, such as inventory management, behind.
Yes, I have to agree - cutting out the drudgery would be a useful step. But I'm doubting that the immediate future of the CRPG consists of its best attributes being absorbed into the mass market - because the fanbase for the CRPG is rooted firmly in the Hardcore players, and it is very hard to deliver a CRPG for the mass market without first satisfying the needs of the Hardcore players.
All of which brings me to Kult: Heretic Kingdoms (Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition in the US). Why do I mention this game so often when in many ways it's relatively unimpressive when compared to the games at the top of the market? Because this was the first CRPG project I was able to work on - and it was a real challenge. 3D People are a small up-and-coming Slovakian company who heard about International Hobo when we were interviewed on Gamasutra. They wanted help on the design and story of their game, and although they didn't have the money to pay for us at normal rates, we were able to negotiate a deal.
We redesigned the game mechanics, restructured the story and wrote the entire script in three months. Surely, this is the fastest a CRPG has ever been written. We were working under heavy restrictions, such as the fact the game had to remain in a linear structure (there wasn't time for a more open structure), and the fact that the underlying game was always going to be a hack and slash. But I believe we achieved some minor advances in CRPG design in this modest project.
Firstly, we eliminated the tedious management of potions. Far too many CRPGs in my opinion have as their core activity managing the healing potions. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't play a tabletop RPG in which the main thing the players were doing was finding, buying and deciding when to use potions. So we factored it out completely in Heretic Kingdoms.
Secondly, we tried to get away from what Peterb calls "the spreadsheet full of numbers". We contracted the core numeric mechanics to next to nothing, and instead made the game mechanics focus around the Attunement system. Basically, all abilities (spells, skills etc.) are delivered by a set of abilities called Attunements, and you can have a certain number of these active at the same time. The system is relatively easy to learn, and really quite flexible. I consider it to be a success - but it must be said that you don't necessarily appreciate the system until you've been playing for a while. (And if you don't change your equipment often, you don't end up with enough Attunements to have many interesting choices).
Thirdly, we tried to get a decent, relatively mature story into the game. I think we succeeded. This review of the central character at Women Gamers is a completely fair assessment. Remember that we had to work under incredible limitations on this project. Alita, the heroine, is not a typical adolescent power fantasy... rather, she's a sarcastic, socially maladjusted bitch. But she might have a heart of gold - if the player chooses to play her that way. I wish we'd had the budget to record her voice - it would have helped the game considerably. I believe we genuinally succeeded in giving the player some game choices that were not between 'good' or 'evil' but simply moral decisions in an amoral world. For some players, this worked well.
We're still working with 3D People, and a new Heretic Kingdoms game is in the works. For this one, we're working on it from the beginning, so we are able to attempt much more. We're keeping several of the factors that worked well in the first one, such as the simplified healing system, and the Attunement system - although the latter is being improved. The new system is broken into streams of development - it gives the player greater control over how and which Attunements the player learns. In effect, it provides a bespoke class system which the player has control over.
One thing that we're taking a step backwards on is the character attributes. In the first game, we wanted to keep it as simple as possible. But one thing has become apparent from post-release feedback - the core audience (which is inevitably a Hardcore audience) for these games actually enjoy a little bit of the "spreadsheet full of numbers" - perhaps because it allows them to identify the character in an easy to understand fashion. So we're providing more of a conventional attribute system, although it will remain simple and accessible.
The next Heretic Kingdoms game will have an open world. We always wanted it for the first game, but it was always going to be too expensive. This time, we can make it happen. The linear structure has its place, but it's nice to be able to offer the player a world to explore. And similarly, we're able to give the player more choice as to their starting character. There should be a choice of gender at the very least. We're also exploring ways to make the world more dynamic... I shouldn't say too much about this, because at the moment we can't be sure which elements of this will work.
But the big breakthrough we're hoping to bring to players is the capacity to play a CRPG with or without combat. The new Attunement system supports a number of abilities that will mean the player can choose to play the game without fighting if they wish. These alternatives all allow the player to develop their character without combat. It's early days yet, so I shouldn't say too much. But I'm very excited about the possibilities for the new game.
The new game, which is entitled Heretic Kingdoms: Reluctant Hero is still a year off at least. It's a niche market game - it won't have the budget to truly impress people compared to the expensive products in the top market, but 3D People are talented developers, and we think we can achieve something special with this game. (They've been working on the new engine recently - I'm looking forward to seeing it!) I hope that there are enough CRPG fans out there who really mean it when they say that cutting edge technology isn't the most important thing. To any CRPG fans out there who read this, I hope you'll join us on a journey that - with a little luck - will take us a little bit further torwards somewhere new and involving.