What Makes a Great RPG, Part II

By Shamus Posted Thursday Sep 27, 2007

Filed under: Game Design 50 comments

Yesterday I commented that I was having trouble figuring out what made an RPG “great”. Then I realized that an easy way to answer this question is to just look at the major RPG titles that have come out in the last few years. By looking at recent A-list titles, it’s pretty easy to see what makes RPGs great and which features are most important for success:

1. The game must have awesome cutting-edge graphics and cater directly to computers made in the last two years. If your game doesn’t have a bunch of crap with bump-textured pixelshader bling mapping, it’s not an RPG. RPGs are defined by how far out on the bleeding graphical edge they are.

2. The game should have a few choices, but not too many. These choices should be clearly clearly defined between good and evil, such as “save orphanage” vs “burn down orphange”. Don’t confuse the player with grey areas, unintended consequences, or outcomes more complex than the accumulation of “good” and “evil” points.

3. The game should have multiple two endings. One of which should be fuzzy kittens “good” and the other should be chaotic jackass “evil”.

4. The game should have challenging combat. People play RPG games because they like a solid challenge that takes many attempts to overcome, even for veteran players. Make sure people can’t overcome these obstacles by gaining strength elsewhere in the game or finding a non-combat solution, as that would be cheating. If you aren’t kicking the player back to the loading screen once in a while, then your RPG sucks.

5. The game must have good boss fights. A good boss fight is one where the player fights a single enemy for a very long time while drinking lots of health potions. It doesn’t matter if the boss makes sense or not, or if they are even fair. If you need to introduce a twelve foot tall human with 5,000 hit points and endlessly respawning minions, then so be it, because good RPGs have good bosses. The boss should also egg the player on by repeating a few taunts over and over during the fight.

6. The game should have as many plot-driven doors as possible. Players love to go on lengthy sidequests unrelated to the central plot so they can fetch keys to open otherwise normal doors.

7. There must be a romance subplot where the player can win the affections of a hot young chick. It doesnt matter if they are playing as an 87 year old wizard or a surly orc, the romance subplot in the game should be focused on a single attractive young female. If you allow the player to choose their gender, then make sure the game is fair to female players by allowing them to seduce the hot chick as well.

8. There Should Be A Bigass Sword. People love games where they quest for a big honkin’ sword. It doesn’t matter if they are playing as a wizard or a rogue or would normally have no use for a sword. If you want a good RPG, then the player needs to be sent to get a sword the size of a telephone pole.

9. The game should have a middle-ages fantasy setting, because RPG games have wizards and dragons. Don’t confuse people with non-RPG settings like outer space, a cyberpunk dystopia, or a modern city. You need to package your RPG game in an RPG setting. And speaking of packaging: The game needs great box art. And by “great” I mean it has a half-naked woman.

10. If the plot seems a little thin, spice it up by putting some crap in there about destiny and prophesy or somesuch.

If you follow these ten steps, you’re sure to have a stellar RPG on your hands. (But hype it up before launch just to make sure!) If your game sells poorly, it doesn’t mean your game sucks. It just means your game was so awesome that people decided to pirate it.


From The Archives:

50 thoughts on “What Makes a Great RPG, Part II

  1. Darin says:

    I agree with everything, except point #11.

  2. Aires says:

    Great stuff! You’ve got some great writing technique. It always brightens up my day reading Twenty-Sided.

  3. Marmot says:

    For the first few points I thought something like “oh my has he gone mad” then at plot driven doors I got the entire thing and started laughing; good job!

  4. Dan Hemmens says:

    These choices should be clearly clearly defined between good and evil, such as “save orphanage” vs “burn down orphange”. Don't confuse the player with grey areas, unintended consequences, or outcomes more complex than the accumulation of “good” and “evil” points.

    Also: remember to award “Good” and “Evil” points for as many actions as possible. Even if it’s completely arbitrary and makes no sense. Because that way you can talk about how your actions in the game have *consequences*.

    Also: remember that “Good and Evil” are morally simplistic concepts which nobody really believes in any more, so you should replace your good and evil options with completely different and unqique moral philosophies, both of which have a strong underlying structure and rational arguments in this favour. One of these philosophies should involve giving money to beggars, and the other should involve slaughtering people at random.

  5. Cocacola-Mitchell says:

    Ohhh, that’s tragic how true they have all become..
    Once again another point in favour of why I prefer retro gaming. Of course current generation is great as well.

  6. Mordaedil says:

    Really? You didn’t find point 1 dripping with sarcasm?

  7. Scourge says:

    Great for a good laugh ^^ Really liked it.

    Hm, what else to add, ah yes. Let the Mentor of the hero die, also kidnap his girlfriend, if he has none just capture some random chick and it soon will turn out that the hero had deep feelings for her and wants to rescue her.

    Also put obstacles in the way, like a cart on the bridge, so you have to walk a thousand miles around a mountain to get where you want to go. Also don’t care if you are good or evil and could easily kill the one standing near the cart and saying ‘The road is blocked’ or that you might be able to push the cart out of the way.

  8. Cheesemaster says:

    Very well done. I like the constant references to piracy that have been popping up since the whole Bioshock drama too.

  9. Jattenalle says:

    An addition to #10:
    Always make the hero have a dark and mysterious past. Always!

  10. Pilomotor says:

    The hero’s past doesn’t have to be mysterious, although that’s perfectly acceptable if you want to focus upon stuff that has more to do with the plot than character development. Just make sure at least one of his parents was brutally murdered.

  11. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    “If your game sells poorly, it doesn't mean your game sucks. It just means your game was so awesome that people decided to pirate it.”

    Which is why you need to make your game as pirate proof as possible.Make the disk self-destruct after exactly 4 minutes in the drive.That way,they wont be able to burn a new one.

    By the way,7 and 9 are still making me laugh.Well,we all know that only males play games,right?And they love that hot lesbian action when their female character grabs some female NPC’s a$$.

  12. Mike says:

    Heh… I think we should send this list to all the RPG-makers out there. Wait, I think they already stole it. Darn.

    These choices should be clearly clearly defined between good and evil, such as “save orphanage” vs “burn down orphange”. Don't confuse the player with grey areas, unintended consequences, or outcomes more complex than the accumulation of “good” and “evil” points.

    I think this goes back to the concept of keeping the characters on rails… I mean, realistically I understand why this has to be. How badly does it screw up a DM when your players go off the script in a PnP game? Well, RPG computer games are essentially closed boxes, with no DM to deal with “off the beaten path” scenarios. And you have to code all of the scenarios that are in the game months in advance.

    That was actually one of the reasons I really liked Oblivion. There were SO MANY side quests and paths you could take. And you could take any combinations of those side quests. For that matter, you could totally ignore the main quest chain.

  13. AngiePen says:

    ROFL! Yeah, that’s about it these days…. [wry smile] When we get a really great RPG occasionally, like Morrowind, it seems like it’s in spite of the prevailing wisdom rather than because of it.


  14. axcalibar says:

    My current beef is with Persona 3, for its firm adherence to rule #4. Foes can use an element your character is weak to and not only reduce their HP to nubbins (if it doesn’t kill you outright), but knock them down to boot. This also gives them another immediate attack! Unbelievably, that’s not all! If your character falls, your AI party cannot revive you… it’s just Game Over. RAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGHH!

  15. Spiral says:

    I am surprised Bioware isn’t knocking on your door. This list makes you a clear candidate for a Creative Director.

  16. Deoxy says:

    I’m surprised Bioware isn’t knocking on your door… with a lawsuit for revealing industry secrets (along with several other companies).

  17. The Sarcasm is strong in this one.
    Hehe :D

    But you are quite right, a good set of 10 rules to avoid when making an RPG.

    Well done.

  18. Pugio Rosso says:

    Sadly, games that follow this formula usually are very successful, wich explains why for every Fallout you get two hundred Diablo clones. Especially since games like, for example, Planescape: Torment, tend to fare badly on the videogames market.
    By the way, I find that this list is even more funny if one considers how “true” (i.e: tabletop, and with a good GM) RPGs are done/played. ;)

  19. Mari says:

    You forgot to throw in some random “and the screen goes black” sex scenes. Oh, and a journey to find your past. And you mustn’t forget to mention balanced gameplay. If you offer a player the choice of several different “career paths” make sure that all but one (ideally the one involving hitting things with sharp objects) are unduly difficult and result in getting booted back to the start screen with much more frequency. Also, every good RPG should involve one absolutely pointless pursuit just for laughs which pervades the entire game such as chicken plucking.

  20. Bogan the Mighty says:

    You know the whole setting thing with the space just made me think of a game you should try if you want a console game, Star Ocean. The PS2 one is pretty good, but the one for PS1 is better. They have a little bit of a space theme to it that made me think of them, but mostly fantasy setting.

  21. Sarcasm is great. ;-)

    As for #1… I just finished playing Fallout (first time I made it to the end!) and had a blast.

  22. Insanodag says:

    That was incredibly funny…

  23. JB says:

    Also….whenever an important character or NPC in a RPG dies, he or she must not be resurrectable, despite the lead character and/or one of his/her companions clearly having any number of dead-raising spells/abilities (cough, cough…NWN2)

  24. empty_other says:

    *deep Marvin-sigh* Too true. Hopefully it’ll pass. Because i should not be old enough to say that old times was better times!

  25. Althanis says:

    Ahhhh. Sarcasm. My favorite tool. =)

    Despite showing several of the attributes listed above, Neverwinter Nights (original) was an excellent RPG. And I have never enjoyed a game as much as Knights of the Old Republic.

  26. Krellen says:

    I just don’t get why so many people like the Elder Scroll games. The reason I keep hearing is “because I can do whatever I like”: well, so can I, and I don’t have to turn on my computer to do it.

    I guess that’s the disconnect. I play tabletop RPGs (and take those to forums when I don’t have a gaming group), so I have no need of expensive, pointless computer sandboxes. Thus why I want my RPGs to have good cohesive stories, which the Elder Scrolls do not.

  27. Alexis says:

    But, but, I LIKE fuzzy kittens!

    #4 is interesting to me. I just posted on yesterday’s thread (aka, I just wasted half an hour… dammit) about mechanics. Well, mechanics don’t have to be combat. Clue placement, dialog tree design, amount of pixelhunting etc are mechanics too. Arguably ‘diplomat’, ‘spy’, ‘psychic’ should be developed and balanced just like ‘hunter’, ‘mage’, ‘warrior’.

    If some mechanics/systems people were given a crack at plot development and social interaction, something really interesting could happen I’m sure. Far beyond the hollow mockery of Oblivion Speechcraft, or the arbitrary dialog ‘trees’ (railroads) in most games.

    #5 – a few games have taken to stretching the ‘boss fight’ over the whole level, with shorter fighting sequences and scripted escapes. Designers, develop this further please.

  28. gyfrmabrd says:

    Yes, FABLE was truly a great RPG!

  29. Marty says:

    11) Make sure your world is made up of small “zones” and that moving between them constantly allows the players to pause for a soda or sandwich while he waits for them to load.

  30. gyfrmabrd says:

    Oh yeah, and also:
    Be sure to tie certain critical plot-events to certain absolutely arbitrary triggers, like a stat increase, or the outcome of a quest that seemed totally unrelated to the storyline.
    Alternatively, if you feel like you absolutely HAVE to tie the event to plot-related quest, make sure to implement only ONE possible solution to the quest. If you erraneously implemented an alternative strategy for said quest, be sure to blatantly ignore the outcome, instead pushing the player along as if nothing had happened and he had actually chosen the “right” solution. Players will appreciate the added layer of “destiny” this gives to the plot.

  31. Davesnot says:

    And never ever forget to load up on plot-doors!!

  32. Even with arbitrary dialog trees, it’d be easy enough to give social characters an edge. Just give extra dialog options to characters with effective schmoozing skills. For example, a diplomat would get clever dialog lines that tend to box NPCs into a corner where they have to admit useful information, a very charismatic-type character along the bard line would simply get more positive responses and aid leading to additional dialog possibilities, and a psychic would get extra dialog that said things like “I can see in your mind that X, Y, Z. You have the key to the Macguffin–give it to me or your boss finds out that A, B, C”, or “You speak angrily, but I can sense that you are troubled that your leader is doing X. You still have the chance to redeem yourself; deactivate the alarm and I will rescue the helpless plot devices!”

    So brand new mechanics wouldn’t even be needed to shift emphasis. Just making more interesting use of the mechanics they already have would help.

  33. Or, a more active psychic would have an option in dialogue situations to do a psychic “make the person malleable” attack; if successful he’d get a whole new dialog tree where the NPC was far more helpful. But, different NPCs would be different degrees difficult, depending on their own mental strength and their degree of openness or hostility to the PC, and failure would increase hostility or maybe even change a conversation to a combat. The player would need to develop their skill before tackling some of the tougher NPCs that might be able to give more crucial help or information.

    In the same game, a more hack-and-slash PC might have to fight through a bunch of difficult scenarios that a well played psychic would be able to bypass or make much easier–but then, the combat PC would be able to shove through things that would splat the psychic on the pavement, so the game could still be balanced.

  34. Dev Null says:

    The game needs great box art. And by “great” I mean it has a half-naked woman.

    …with the aforementioned Enormous Honking 6-handed Sword of Destiny, of course.

    The fluffy-kitten good vs. puppy-kicking evil choices are the ones that get me. What about a choice thats actually a choice? Like save your girlfriend or save the city? But then, I’ve always thought it was funny that: 1) good stories often involve ambiguous choices, 2) the best RPGs tell good stories, and yet 3) one of the big appeals to RPGs – tabletop and computer – seems to be the simplicity of highly-polar good vs. evil. People like to get away from the complexities of the real world and hide out somewhere where its obvious who the enemy is and you get to hit them: All Orcs Are Evil and ruled by a frothing megalomaniac necromancer with long fingernails, a longstanding kitten torture habit, and a burning desire to destroy the world through long-winded pontificating. Bad guys wear black; good guys wear… hessian sacks, for some reason.

    I just don’t see why they always have to take that to such extremes; you can have obvious bad guys and still have real choices on your way to beating them.

  35. Andy P says:

    “Save your girlfriend or save the city” – nah, no-one cares about girlfriends in games (especially if the girl playing are themselves a girl). Everyone would just save the city for the XP.

    How about “save city A or save city B”, or even “let both cities burn”? You’d have to have some differences between the cities to avoid it being a toss-a-coin type situation, but make sure that each choice has a clear risk, a clear reward, and then people will start to choose based on in-character morals rather than out-of-character greed.

  36. Dev Null says:

    How about “save city A or save city B”, or even “let both cities burn”? You'd have to have some differences between the cities to avoid it being a toss-a-coin type situation, but make sure that each choice has a clear risk, a clear reward, and then people will start to choose based on in-character morals rather than out-of-character greed.

    Well true, though in a _really_ good RPG you _would_ care about the NPCs…

    I like your idea, but I’d leave out the clear reward. In my game (in my head) I don’t want you choosing to save city A because you’re a mage and that quest gets you the Staff of the Multitudinous Mayfly instead of the Sword of Improbable Irony, I want you to have to choose because you’ve met people in both towns – maybe they’ve both appealed to you for rescue – and you just liked one better than the other. And not because one was full of politicians and telemarketers while the other was full of buxom babes and fluffy kittens either. Maybe that does make it a coin-flipping exercise for the power gamers, but if you play your story right maybe someone will care…

  37. Carra says:

    Ah, I miss Planescape Torment.

    Now, that’s an rpg.

  38. Madjack says:

    Why all the sarcasm? I mean, you’ve got the constant hateful rants against 2K, your story about how there’s nothing exciting for you at the PC section of the game store, and now this?

    You go around with the whole “oh look, the whole game industry is just putting tired old retreads on the efforts of great games before them, there is no creativity or originality in the world anymore le sigh” then expect the world to marvel at Chainmail Bikini?

    Use your powers for awesome. You have a large audience that you *earned* with witty, quality work in DMoTR. If you think games today are crappy, work towards making a better one. Be different; you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone’s personal site ranting about the sorry state of [hobby], why not rise above that?

  39. Jeff says:

    Don’t forget my favorite:

    Use a convoluted, non-intuitive method of character design/growth that you never explain to the player. You can squeeze out more hours of gameplay if the player has to restart halfway through because his character isn’t minmaxed enough to survive, and if the system’s complex enough, it’ll help sell the strategy guide!

  40. Zaghadka says:

    To quote Douglas Adams:

    “Nobody likes a smart ass.” ;^)

  41. Leon says:

    Sounds like this entire list was inspired by Fable.

  42. ArchU says:

    I think Shamus is researching too much into it. #9 is all you really need…

  43. Woot Spitum says:

    You left out the part about gathering mcguffins that will cause the end of the world to prevent the BBEG from getting them, only to have him take them away in a cutscene, thus enshuring that you unwittingly did all his work for him.

  44. Miral says:

    I actually would like more of #7 & #8 in games. Maybe that’s just me :)

    (I’m undecided about #6 — it can be done properly, after all. But the rest of them I don’t like at all, yet do seem to be commonplace.)

  45. Jackv says:

    LOL. That was very well said, that sums it up.

    On the other hand, I’m inclined to give a give a pass to kickass swords. Gandalf had one. Luke Skywalker had one. Highlander had one. Buffy had one. There was one in Heroes. Of course, coming up with a new setting is great, and rare, but despite the cliche, I feel fiction hasn’t mined out all the depth in kickass swords yet :)

  46. DGM says:

    11+. Whatever great and powerful evil is menacing the world, it has to be all your fault. You’re the one who created or unleashed the danger somehow, even if you had no way of knowing at the time. Even if all you’re really guilty of was trying to stay alive at the time.

    See: Ultima 9, Chrono Cross, System Shock, etc.

    Failing this, you must at least be connected to it all somehow beyond simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  47. Rhea says:

    You know, I hate to admit it, but #1 actually IS a big deal for me. I don’t have a lot of time to play games, but when I do, they better give me lots of pretty eye candy. I guess it’s just the artist in me (and having a computer that will run the cutting edge graphics). But, this doesn’t necessarily mean “I want the latest and greatest” so much as “I want to see that they’ve done well with what they had”. I clever use of regular pixels will beat poorly used super!pixels any day. Likewise, being able to control the video settings to a meaningful degree is important (so if I want to turn it down and run on an older card, I can).

  48. Amberyl Ravenclaw says:

    Great stuff Shamus. I agree with the poster who said that it sounds “inspired by Fable”; or did you take a leaf out of Yahtzee’s book from The Escapist website? The guy’s video reviews on Bioshock and Fable pretty much run along the lines of what you wrote. *wink*

    Regarding No. 7: I think it’s a bit odd that almost every RPG has to have this must-have romance subplot. It’s like a given thing that since you’re the Numero Uno Hero or Villain of the series, somebody somewhere has got to be interested enough to declare undying love or admiration for you. I can’t figure out whether it’s really what players want (on Bioware forums, there are oodles of people clamoring for romance material, and it’s not entirely a bad thing) or some obligatory goodie that the developers throw in because it’s expected.

    And need I mention that most of the romance subplots are horribly shallow. Call me a cynic as well, but I’ve never known an “undying I-will-follow-you-to-hell-and-back” love develop within the span of three months or whatever length of time the average RPG takes from start to finish. Of course, it’s only a game!

  49. Anonymous says:

    Brilliant. Totally brilliant.

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