Wednesday, September 12, 2012

#38: The RPG Genre: Back to the Drawing Board

Most people who read this regularly are aware of how much I love Role Playing Games. I love them for their emphasis on story and player interaction with the story through their mechanic. It is fun to play through these games and be truly immersed in a brand new world and its story. However, these games are far from flawless. Being video games, they can only do so much in terms of simulating a world. Since all games are just computer programs, they have to be represented in ways that a computer can easily process and display. In the old days, the limitations caused by the technology of the time inspired a number of RPG genre conventions. That was way back then. In the modern day, many of these technical limitations no longer exist because of the way technology constantly evolves. Developers are no longer bound by the technological limits of that past and are capable of doing much more with their games.

However, many of the old conventions and styles that were seen back then, once used to abstract many of the things that were (and sometimes still are) difficult to represent any other way, are still present in the RPGs being created in the here and now. A few days ago, I had a conversation on Twitter with contributor Grey Carter about some of these mechanics that have withstood the test of time. Specifically, whether or not it is worth it to keep these mechanics around. In this week's post, I will apply my analysis to the topic and see if video really did kill the radio star. Is it time we rethought RPGs and how they act in a mechanical sense?

As usual when writing an article like this, it helps to define what I am referring to so that we are all on the same page. When I refer to an RPG, I mean any story-focused game with a strong sense of character progression and/or customization. This can mean anything from the Final Fantasy games of old all the way to more modern games like Fallout: New Vegas or Mass Effect 3. I will be taking a look at how these games use old school mechanics and why they use them in the way that they do. Then, we will see if it is possible to do things differently now, either making the game either more immersive or improve them in terms of control, role-playing, or entertainment value.

One of the biggest conventions of the RPG genre is the use of skill points as a way to represent the player character's proficiency with regards to certain disciplines, both in and out of combat. In a (semi-)turned based RPG, it makes sense for characters to have stats that represent their ability to perform certain actions successfully, be it firing a gun, casting a spell, swinging a sword, hacking a computer, or talking their way out a dangerous situation. Since it is difficult to have much in the way of player input in a turn-based game, skill levels are the only way to differentiate one player's character and style from another player's. The only way to show player progression in a turn based game is to increase their character's stats and skills, which affect overall damage output and chance of success. Considering the technical and mechanical limitations of such games, implementing a system of stats and skills the determine how talented the player is makes total sense.

When we move into a three dimensional, action-oriented space, this quickly becomes irrelevant. In an action-RPG like the more recent installments in the Fallout franchise, shooting mechanics and player skill are now factors in the success of the player. However, in these games, there exists a system of stats and skills that influence the outcome of confrontations and events. Improving weapon skills increases the damage output and accuracy of weapons governed by it while doing the same to non-combat skills allows the player to do more with them via Speech checks and minigames. Sadly, I do not think any of this is necessary. Since we now have a fully realized world with combat comparable to (though not better than) many First Person Shooters and minigames that require player skill to execute properly, it makes less sense to abstract these elements. For RPGs like these, it may no longer make sense to even have skill levels and points for the character since the player's own skill, which will improve over the course of the game, can be taken into account. This can even be extended to non-combat scenarios. Lockpicking and hacking can be done through minigames as demonstrated by recent titles like Fallout 3, whose lockpicking is widely regarded as one of the best infiltration minigames of all time, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which had a very interesting and enjoyable hacking minigame (sadly marred by a few questionable design decisions in the game) and the best conversation mechanic I have ever played with. Fallout 3 also had a hand in proving that skill points in these non-combat aspects of an RPG are completely arbitrary. In the game, it was impossible to even make an attempt to pick a lock unless the player had a high enough Lockpicking skill to do so. This makes even less sense upon realization that these higher level locks are genuinely tougher to pick. It is more logical either make the game more difficult, or a have a skill that governs what locks the player can pick. Having both is excessive. Though I understand that many would be wary of introducing player skill as an element of play, since it has the potential to leave some players out due to a lack of it, this is why modern games have adjustable difficulty as a way to equilize the imbalance between skilled and unskilled players. In the end, it is a design choice to be made by the creators of the game. I just believe it is worth thinking about this decision when going forward, since some games simply have no use for these mechanics.

The other common trope used in RPGs that I will be going over is the concept of vendor trash. By vendor trash, I mean items the take up inventory space, yet only serve the purpose of being sold to merchants for money. I can understand why developers do this even today. It makes no sense for the player to kill a wolf and have it drop five gold coins. To facilitate immersion, they would instead have a wolf drop a pelt that the player can then sell to vendors to make money. Though this concept is immersive and makes sense for a world, it is not exactly fun for the player to have to carry around tons of loot that takes up valuable inventory space which could be used to carry more useful items like weapons, armor, medical supplies and food. While I am a fan of forcing players to make meaningful choices, it is hardly meaningful to force players to choose between picking up a new sword or picking up a gold ingot that can be sold for money used to purchase a new sword.

In my opinion, vendor trash still has a place in RPGs, but it should be handled differently. Since vendor trash is effectively just gold waiting to be cashed out, it should be in a separate category and take up no space. While some may argue that it is not immersive to carry all sorts of vendor trash and not have it weigh the player down, I would argue contrary to that. When a designer forces the player to interact too much with the underlying systems of a game world, they start to lose their immersion. Thus, it is important to balance ease of use with simulation, which is far easier said than done. Also, by that logic, it would be unimmersive to allow the player to store tens of thousands of gold coins in their inventory without taking up space.

It is also possible to use vendor trash in other ways. For example, in Final Fantasy XII, which has the unlimited inventory space that many JRPGs do (as an interesting side note), did away with random animals dropping gold coins when they die (as an abstraction of taking their pelts) in favor of vendor trash. What they also did was introduce a new type of good in the vaious shops called Bazaar Goods. How it worked was that when the player sold cetain combinations of vendor trash to dealers, it would unlock certain items and item packs in the Bazaar. The game explained that selling vendor trash to various stores introduced these component items into the economy, allowing people to use those items in the construction of new ones to be put up for sale. This was an interesting way of making seemingly useless items have more purpose beyond just being gold in item form. After all, people would start making items with the goods that adventurers would gather and sell. Designers should put more thought into systems like this because RPG players will usually end up interacting with the economy very often. It is worth it to make this experience as painless, yet interesting, as possible.

To be fair, both of these mechanics were in place well before RPGs existed in video game form. Old RPGs, both from the West and from the East, take inspiration from Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop games in that vein and are, as such, deeply entreched in the way people think about RPGs. Back then, they had use as a gameplay abstraction to otherwise realistic events. While a healthy respect for tradition is always a valuable thing to have, I feel like it is necessary to analyze old ways of thinking to see if they are still necessary in the modern era. When technology and game design evolve, some of the old ways of thinking no long apply. In the cases I outlined above, both mechanics still have merit in modern games, but they may need to be tweaked a little in order to make them more palatable. Though I am sure there are other examples of outdated mechanics presisting longer than they should have, I cannot think of any more that need discussion. Nonetheless, it is important to do an analysis like this if we want to improve this medium as a whole.


Aldowyn said...

One thing at a time, let's go.

Skill levels are supposed to be a representation of character skill. Player skill should be an element, but so should character skill. Let's take Oblivion's lockpicking as an example (I know people didn't like the mechanics, but that's not the point). You could attempt to pick any lock, but a higher lockpicking skill made it easier. In my mind that's a good blend of character and player skill - each one complements the other, and if one is high it can make up for a lack of the other. Many players consider character skill progression to be a necessary part of any RPG.

You mention Fallout specifically... Are you proposing a game of that type with no skills at all? So gameplay difficulty is only dependent on player skill and (I assume) equipment, with absolutely no character skill influencing it?

As for vendor trash... meh. I'm not a huge fan of most game economies anyway. They tend to be balanced poorly, so you have next to no money at the beginning, and tons at the end, without much middle ground. Not to mention not having much to buy. I'd be totally fine with a game that doesn't expect you to keep anything you can't use. (More equipment quest rewards though) And genuine vendor trash that has NO use other than to sell... Not against it in principle. It makes sense, allows you to get money from creatures that it wouldn't make sense to just get money from, etc. etc.

I DO think that the bazaar system in FFXII was fairly interesting, certainly unusual. It gives a nice progression to what you can buy that makes more sense than "stuff appropriate to your level (or licenses. Good idea, hard to implement. I'm sure veterans can use it perfectly, but it's VERY confusing for newcomers) is now suddenly available to buy!"

newdarkcloud said...

For the record, I'm not against skill points and using them. I'm just saying that if you are going to use them, they need to be implemented more smartly and not just hamfisted into the game for no reason. That's where I was going with the Fallout example.

It just seemed that skills like Lockpicking and Hacking were there just to have them. They had no bearing on the actual minigame. Also, a lot of the weapons you find (particularly in New Vegas) seem to completely negate any disadvantage you might have as a result of low skills (Ballistic Fist anyone). In my opinion, you should either use them or lose them.

But I actually do think a game like Fallout done without skill points at all is entirely possible. Deus Ex: Human Revolution makes a very compelling case for RPGs without skill points. It is entirely possible to accomplish any task in any way without using any of the upgrades/augments. Even with augments, it's not like they are a replacement of skill points.

To be clear, Final Fantasy XII STILL had the stores in the next city sell better stuff syndrome, but all of the best items (and many of the higher quality ones) could only be accessed via the bazaar. I think they could have used this system more, but I thank them for the idea.
(And screw the license system. New players find it confusing and veteran players just find it tedious. Honestly it was just stupid and unnecessary. The international version even dropped it in favor of upgradeable classes, which I heard were better received.)

anaphysik said...

Persona (at least P4) also had the 'sell materials to the shop to unlock new stuff,' and it had the benefit of only having one shop (well, two shops, but they covered different spheres).

Thomas said...

The Bazaar system was good, especially combined with the special items you might get out of it.

I disagree with you pretty much on the stat thing though. Or rather you're correct that you could have a Fallout game without it (and it would be a pretty interesting game) but it wouldn't be the same game and have the same type of appeal. The fun of a stats system is 1) A very strong sense of progression. 2) Rewarding the player for long term planning decisions. 3)Being able to more accurately express a character.

If it's all real-time skill checks, we don't get 1 unless it's a new gameplay system (never really thought of this before, but one of the differences between modern shooters and old shooters, is we don't get the same sense of progression from newb to 'holy crud I'm good' because people enjoy shooters enough and play them enough that they're already good at it. Most people nowadays expect to be able to pick up a shooter and be good at it, and there's not a huge amount of room to improve. Even Mass Effect, you might learn to use your abilities better, but I don't think people were actually shooting better. This maybe even explains a little why shooters have become more scenic/cinematic)

You exchange 2 for gratification for current skill and whilst 3 is possible it doesn't feel the same. You can choose to be a talky character but when you're exactly as skilled at shooting it's not the same.

Maybe there's room in RPGs now they're more actually simulated to make stats more obvious though. Like a strengthened version of augments. Or instead of having stats for chance to hit extra and 'luck', you actually make your character move faster/jump higher/fire faster (like Morrowind =D). I could see the need for Fallout to move more in that direction, but it would need to be a different game for different fans to remove character uilding from core gameplay instead.

Also here is Josh Sawyer of Obsidian blog post on this

newdarkcloud said...

That's an interesting blog post (and Mr. Sawyer would definitely know more about what he is talking about than I). I'm glad you shared it.

And I'm not saying that skill points/checks are inherently better or worse, I'm saying that it depends entirely on the what the designers intention is when making the game. I mentioned Fallout 3 in particular due to the fact that they have both checks and arbitrary mini-games for the same task (lockpicking/hacking). While Fallout 3's infiltration mini-games were good, having both them AND skill checks seems redundant.

Though I'll state my thoughts on your point: 1 can be done by making the systems and gameplay progressively more difficult. This requires a bit of skill in terms of design, but it can easily be pulled. We see this in most non-RPGs in some way.

I'll admit, you've got me on 2. Though you could easily do something like Deus Ex where you plan ahead by what you buy and bring with you on quests. Your reward for forethought would still be there. You can even introduce upgrades like Deus Ex did.

As you concede, it is also possible for 3 to be attained without skill points, although it would feel different.

Skill points aren't bad, but there's no reason we need to adhere to the concept so strictly. All I'm saying is that we should have an open mind to new RPG mechanics and design mentalities.

Thomas said...

I'm actually not so convinced on the steadying escalation any more. I'm going to have to think about this more, but the average CoD player is going to be about as close to the maximum skill required already at the start of a campaign and even 30 hours of Fallout shooting aren't going to be a major improvement on his skill level to feel satisfiable. If they wanted to put it over, I reckon they'd actually have to invisibly adjust the numbers so that the enemies get progressively weaker as the game goes on (but more of them and flashier).

But you're right that the game has changed and the decision need to be remade rather than an autopilot. I'm still convinced Fallout specifically should have some form of lockpick stat check though, because as the games stands building a lockpicking character is meant to be a way to play the game. Whereas making a strong melee fighter brute who can also happen to pick locks because you the player are good at it would be wrong (they kinda failed at this really in some ways). It's not the sort of game thats asking you to deliberate fail tasks to roleplay.

(Saying that here's my second random Obsidian blog of the conversation. Chris Avellone on stats.
Because I find it hilarious that he's the sort of person who deliberately screws up with a character to reflect the bizarre personality and backstory he ending up giving them)

newdarkcloud said...

Have you ever heard Susan Arendt talk about role-play in video games during the Escapist Podcasts? I forget which one, but in one of them, she talks about how she forms the character's skills, personality, and preferences in her head and/or on paper before she begins the game. Then, she does things and makes choices depending on what the character she devised would/could do. This isn't because of an particular game's systems, but rather her doing her own thing.
A Role-Playing game can facilitate and encourage this kind of approach without the use of skill points. Give the player enough freedom to tell their own twist and take on the story you crafted.

As for Fallout, I think it would've been better to handle those infiltration games Skyrim style. It get's easier to do them at higher skill levels, but higher skills won't prohibit you from attempting to do it. That makes sense.

The lockpicking game is really fun and intuitive. The hacking is too to a lesser extent, but at least you can practice it with this little game:

Vartuoosi said...

Any of my biggest pet peeves is when in gameplay the player character can't do something that he/she should be able to do according the his/her backstory, without pouring a ton of skill points into that skill first.

One of the best examples of this is the first Mass Effect. Shepard is an interplanetary commando, one of the most highly trained member of the Alliance special forces with combat experience prior to the game and yet in gameplay he/she doesn't know which end of a gun you point at the enemy.