on Oct 1, 2007
Rampant Coyote followed up to my earlier posts on this subject. Mr. Halbert had more thoughts on this as well. (And while I’m thinking about it: I check Technorati for incoming links. Technorati is sometimes capricious and unpredictable. As always, if you have a response post on your blog feel free to throw a link in the comments.)
I do notice that two of the big items on everyone’s list of things computer RPG’s should have are:
- It must give the player lots of freedom to make their own choices.
- It must have a great story.
But that’s not so much a pair of features as a tradeoff. Great stories must be revealed at a steady rate. They must have compelling characters. They should have twists and and an escalating sense of danger. On the other hand, freedom means giving the player the ability to impose their will on the story in unpredictable ways. Imagine LOTR if Frodo destroyed the ring at the start of book two, and the rest of the story was a tale of declining danger and excitment as they mopped up the weakened orcs and marched home. There needs to be a climax and some sort of wrap-up to any good story, but this is nearly impossible if you’ve got a world where the player can go anywhere and kill or ignore anyone.
The DMotR strip of killing Gollum is a classic example of this. Having Gollumn follow the party was needed to set the stage for the second book. It also built tension. All of that would be wrecked if the player can just kill Gollum outright. As the game developer you can make him invincible, in which case you’re taking away player freedom. “That was total BS how you could shoot that skinny little guy with like 1,000 arrows and he wouldn’t die. Stupid railroading game.” Now, in a tabletop game you have a human mind working on the story that can adapt as needed, but in a videogame all you have to work with is what you’ve programmed. The developers cannot hope to anticipate all of the crazy things players might want to do. Even if they could, writing and testing all of those possible paths would be a mammoth undertaking. What you’ll end up with is a ten-hour game that requires the budget of a two-hundred hour game.
One way around this – and this applies to both videogames and tabletop games – is to create a “great” story to begin with, and then offer the player the continual illusion of freedom within that story by giving them superficial choices. The people at Bioware are masters of this show of illusory player input. It’s not until your second or third trip through the game that you realize how little your dialog choices matter in KOTOR. The first time through, every choice seems meaningful, and NPC reactions are used to distract and redirect you if you attempt to veer away from the critical parts of the path.
The illusion is reinforced if you give the player lots of freedom to change things not germane to the plot:
But no matter how you set things up, an epic story is going to be at odds with total freedom. You can have more of both, but the game will take longer, cost more, and may suffer from wonky or broken quest triggers because the whole system is just too dang complex.
Despite my whining about how RPG’s aren’t delivering what I want, I’m sure a lot of the problem is the nature of the fanbase itself. There aren’t a lot of us. (We’re vastly outnumbered by FPS fans and casual players who just want another SIMS expansion.) We’re also very picky, and our small demographic is broken into a number of sub-groups with conflicting desires. Some people want the freedom of Oblivion or Fallout. Some people want vibrant characters and rich stories, as with Final Fantasy. Some people are jerks like me who unreasonably demand both. And some people just want to mow down millions of golblins in their search for a sword that does 3% more damage. The marketing people bundle us all together as “RPG players”, but we’re not really fans of any unifying game type.
It’s like the nerds at the school dance. If you’re among them, you can see Computer Nerds, Socially Inept and Unattractive Nerds, Likeable but Overly Serious Nerds, Goody Two-Shoes Nerds, and D&D Nerds. But to anyone outside the group, we’re just a Herd of Nerds.
Making RPG’s is a tough gig. Hats off to any developer willing to endure the grueling process of developing a game so fans like me can look at their efforts and go “meh“.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.