Five Lessons of RPG Design

J.E. Sawyer of Obsidian talked about the stuff he thinks is wrong and right in RPG games while at GDC. Great article.

Often, players and reviewers will say that a gameplay mechanic is “pretty good for an RPG. This is a backhanded compliment.” Describing it as frustrating, he is perhaps more frustrated with developers than players: “developers think it’s okay to have crummy mechanics,” he said.

“I think that if you are going to have the player engage in something that’s not conversation and story, it should be fun, and I get really frustrated by this.”

“We repeat errors over and over again… Because it’s a part of what an RPG is,” he said. “We ignore established mechanics from other genres… We don’t look and see how they did it.”

He also pointed out that frequently, games offer gameplay “that really makes players do degenerate tactics… They’re working around our dumb design” to get the results they want, such as repeatedly reloading to pass random checks.

Another problem is that “we listen to the vocal players, who in many cases are wrong-headed.”

A lot more at the source.

Edit: Also, slides from the presentation -

Boy is he ever right about listening to vocal players. So many vocal RPG players are degenerate morons.

He had a …what is it called? Form spring? Mind spring? It was a generic website where people submit questions and he had an account there and would answer them. I can try to dig up the link from facebook when I get home if there is interest.

On a side note he likes action games, so it was actually interesting to sit down and hear him talk about Ninja Gaiden Black and frame mechanics a while back.

And I totally agree with him on aiming reticules and FPS/RPG hybrids. Annoying frustrations, it’s better to move skill upgrades onto things that the player has no direct control over anyway, like reload speed, clip size, or whatever.

Interesting article. Although to this:
Strategic failures are the biggest disappointing failures for players. When building a character or a party, “you’re making long-term decisions,” said Sawyer, "but many RPGs effectively punish you for making bad choices.”

I would counter, that without bad decisions and negative results, there are no good decisions and positive results. For me, good decisions and positive results are the very essence of gaming.

When it comes to something as long-term as party construction, the outcome should range from adequate to exceptional. If there are truly bad or useless configurations, then you are punishing the player for making choices without a strategy guide. A player that makes good decisions should excel, but the player that makes bad ones should, at worst, end up functional but unexceptional.

I’m going to charitably assume that what he means there but didn’t state very well is that it sucks when RPGs force you to make long-term decisions without meaningfully telegraphing the full import of those decisions… in which case, there should be no bad long-term decisions, but rather merely choices of personal preference.

But the examples he was using are having to make long term decisions without being armed with the knowledge to make the correct decisions. Not being able to beat bard’s tale without a bard, but letting you make a party without a bard is just bad design. Having to choose a skill to be good at in fallout, without knowing how common any of the weapons are in the game is another.

Bastion did a great thing in that it let you respec a weapon whenever you went back to the forge. You still had to choose which weapons to bring into battle, and what upgrades to take, but you didn’t have to restart or reload just because you found out you didn’t like the upgrade path you had taken.

Edit: Damn you all for beating me to the punch! =)

What I’ve found interesting in talking to people who play F2P MMOs is how little some players in games really think about the mechanics. For instance, in talking about the item enhancement system in one game, somebody responded, “Hey, at least this game lets you get to +10 and above.”

I don’t mean any disrespect to the person, but the +10 by itself doesn’t really mean anything. Comparing game systems based purely on the number of pluses after a given stat or item is a meaningless exercise. It’s how the moving parts interact that matter.

It certainly makes me question, when people disparage vocal player bases, what metrics system designers are designing to and whether the alternative is any better.

That said, I do think vocal players like to think of themselves as amateur designers, but don’t have the experience or access to information that would let them refine or reject ideas. That may make them wrong headed, but I wouldn’t go as far as to characterize them as “degenerate morons” necessarily.

Edit: Or that even if they are degenerate morons, that specific criticisms, feature requests, etc should be assessed on their own merits rather than just engaging in name calling and casual dismissal of them.

Very good points all, and I also appreciate his candor re: his own company’s games. The point he makes about not looking at the way other genres do things is especially salient, I think; fun, fast-paced, and intuitive melee combat systems were figured out years and years ago by games like Devil May Cry and God of War, yet nearly every RPG with real-time combat still makes you wrestle with Daggerfall-level combat.

I agree with all 3 of you to a point. I still think that without peril and punishment present within the strategic and long term planning aspect of an rpg, any rewards for good play become diluted. In fact the whole system does.

Offering variety in place of reward/punishment is fine, but why not both? Is it even a strategic decision anymore if the only thing that changes is cosmetic?

I think it’s less that they’re morons and more that they’re edge cases who actually enjoy some of the things that are pure downside to almost everyone else. For instance, I’ll bet that for each of those five things, there are several “vocal players” who strongly disagree and will gladly post a diatribe on RPG Codex explaining why.

“This one goes to 11.”

Because if I spend 35 hours playing an RPG and it eventually turns out that the decisions I made building my party were the “wrong” ones and my party is utterly non-viable without massive respeccing, or worse cannot be respecced and my game has dead-ended, that’s terrible design. It’s one of the things I hate most about RPGs with poor design, really. I hate choosing a spell or ability that looks interesting to me only to find out later through gameplay or online discussion that the thing I chose is shitty and not worth the points I used for it.

A punishment for an immediate decision is fine, like if I make a particular choice that causes the dungeon I’m in to become much more difficult. Or if you inform me ahead of time that magic has drawbacks x, y and z but will benefit me in ways a, b and c. But if you’re just throwing me out into a skill tree and stat point pool and willing to screw me dozens of hours later thanks to me choosing what I want to choose, then no, fuck that. There should be decisions that lead me to be more or less powerful, but I should never feel like I have to start over because my decision-making has completely gimped my game or characters.

Great article, thanks for the link.

What you describe is expensive. RPGs tend to be relatively massive in scope and the number of interacting gameplay systems. That prevents (given a similar budget) that level of polish across the entire game. So the question is, when people buy an RPG, are they in part buying that scope and that’s where the significant part of the value lay?

That depends on the game, but I think frequently, that answer is yes.

Yep. I would like to see developers that listen to, and act on feedback from their player base, do a much better job at soliciting that feedback from the silent majority.

Yeah, and this is something Bastion gets so right, by the way. The ability to respec every part of your character at any time for free makes choosing upgrades so much less stressful.

One of my pet hates in RPGs is random non-trivial drops, which he somewhat touches on with “Mechanical chaos is frustrating.” It’s a mechanic which serves absolutely no other purpose than to artificially extend gameplay via grinding.

Thus I’m frequently irritated with Notch when I need to stock up on leather. What the hell man, I just killed a cow and it had NO skin on it?

Free respeccing is the hallmark of a casual game. It reduces what should be permanent character growth decisions to the same category as swords and armor.

Fair enough, and for the record, I agree with pretty much everything Sawyer said and I actually welcomed the minigames in Oblivion because if you’re going to represent an entire world, even abstract game like representations (for example the social minigame), are more interesting than just hitting a button and being given a pass/fail rating.

Why should they be permanent, other than “because that’s how RPGs are?” I’m not saying it’s always better, and there are plenty of great games that don’t allow respeccing and use that to their advantage, but I don’t see any reason to view respeccing as inherently “casual.” I know I mentioned it above, but have you played Bastion?

To a certain degree, this is a failing of FPSs, not RPGs. Shotguns, SMGs, pistols, and rifles all have actual differences in accuracy. Leaving aside how unrealistic it is to treat pistols as sniper weapons, as many shooters do, from a gameplay point of view you need to differentiate between these weapons, so each offers its own advantages. Shooters which treat all weapons as being equally laser-accurate aren’t doing anyone any favors.

One of the better mechanics I’ve see for presenting the idea of accuracy as a key characteristic of a weapon was Borderlands. The aiming reticule is a circle, and it shows you visually what the cone of uncertainty is. If the circle’s much bigger than the target at your present distance, it’s obvious you’re probably not going to hit at this range. This makes a weapon with a very, very accurate aiming circle much more valuable than straight damage at extreme range. It’s a valuable way of giving the player meaningful choice in weapons, and a random factor in accuracy is required to make it work.

Which is funny, in light of his next comment:

What you perceive in a game is ultimately what matters the most – Mass Effect had tons of weapons but they were barely differentiated.

Borderlands did the loot thing very, very well, and did so mainly because they did what Blizzard did with Diablo - they tossed in tons of modifiers, all of which change the way the weapon behaves in very different ways. Between two good weapons at around the same level, it’s usually impossible to say one is strictly better than the other. Usually they’re visible better at different tasks.