How to design an ideal computer role playing game?
First posted on 15 September 1999. Last updated on 25 February 2006.
While doing some background research in preparation for a project to create a new role-playing game (RPG), I have compiled some points on what constitutes a computer RPG (CRPG) and what makes a great CRPG. I have a long history with playing both RPGs and CRPGs as well as a long history with computer programming. After reading the article "What is an ideal adventure game?", I become interested in learning more about designing CRPG and adventure games, given the fact that the two genres have much in common but also many differences which are often confused by novice gamers. In this article, I shall refer to many games, both CRPGs and other genre games, to facilitate my discussion. No actual spoilers to these games are included here. All storyline examples are fictitious and are for illustrative purposes only.
CRPGs can be divided into 2 main genres, both of which contain numerous subgenres. Some games are combination of both or lie completely outside of this definition. The first genre is the first person view CRPGs (Bard's Tale, Dungeon Master, Ultima Underworld, System Shock). The second genre is the more classic third person view CRPGs (Ultima I to VII, Nethack, Rogue, Fallout, Pool of Radiance). Turn-based gameplay has often been thought to be an integral part of the CRPG genre, but this is neither required (Fallout) nor necessary (Ultima Underworld, Final Fantasy VII). So what makes a CRPG a CRPG? Why Leisure Suit Larry, Doom, and Zork are not considered to be CRPGs whereas Zelda 64 may be considered to be one?
Some gamers argue that the answer is that CRPGs contain randomness. This is not necessarily true, since many adventure games (Zork) contain random factors. In fact, CRPGs come in so many variations that no single feature can define the genre, with one key exception—character development. The character under the player's control grows over time, gains experience, skills, powers, and becomes stronger as a whole. Where should the exact line be drawn is a discussion that lies outside the purview of this article. Let us compare between Zelda and Doom. Whereas Link in Zelda grows stronger by finding pieces of heart, the marine in Doom collects health and armor. Both games have progressive weapon deployment. Still, the former feels more like a RPG than the latter. It is because in theory, at least, you can solve the last level of Doom with the same marine character you start with. In fact, the difference lies in the fact that in Doom it is the player who gains more experience not the character.
With this introduction in mind, I shall now focus more on the classic third person view rather than the first person view genre of CRPGs.
A modern CPRG game can be considered to be driven by 6 distinct engines or views—world view, battle view, talk view, shop view, personal view, and NPC (Non-Player Character) engine. These engines can be hidden (the player does not necessarily need to know that the knight has just learned to wield the poleaxe 1% better than before), combined (the battle and world views in Ultima VII; the shop and talk views in Fallout; the talk, shop, battle, and world views in Fairy Tale Adventure), or even dropped out completely in the game.
The world view
The world view is where most of the action takes place or should take place in the game. How this view is implemented varies greatly. A game may have multiple world views, either by zooming into a city (Ultima V) or zooming out into an open area (Final Fantasy VII, Fallout 2). The world view may be screen-based (Final Fantasy VII cities), tile-based (Ultima V), or free form (Zelda 64, Final Fantasy VII planets). Of these, I prefer a tile-based engine it is simpler to make compared to a full fledged 3D engine. Environmental effects such as light, visibility, and weather are also easier and cheaper to implement. It is a shame that nobody has made a really modern tile-based engine, especially now that we have many times more CPU power than an 80286 or a c64 that runs Ultima V!
The battle view
I do not know of any CRPG that does not have any fighting, even though one is theoretically possible. Fighting is a simple way to introduce loads of content into a CRPG such that it is rather improbable to imagine a game without it. The battle view may be combined with the world view (Ultima VIII, Fallout 2, Fairy Tale Adventure), a sub-view of the world view (Ultima V, which zooms to a level even smaller than a city when a fight occurs), or a completely different view (Final Fintasy VII, Betrayal at Krondor, Pool of Radiance). All of the CRPGs I have played have turn-based battles if the battle view is not combined with the world view. Even when the two views are combined, the battles often take place in turns. In theory, nothing forces a CRPG to have turn-based combat. In most games where party members are allowed, it is desirable to have the ability to control everyone in your party during a battle. This explains why a turn-based design is so common. Fallout 2 has independently acting party members, but it still has turn-based battles.
The complexity of battle view varies as well. Common tile-based battles (AD&D Gold Box games, Ultima V, Betrayal at Krondor) offers the ability for the player to control each party member's movement, inventory, attack, and even attack style (slash, hack, bash). These engines employ movement points for each character. You can move across a number of tiles, access inventory, attack, or perform other actions for each turn, provided that the total time duration required for these actions does not exceed a predefined limit. Other games (Final Fantasy VII) have very light combat mode, where you can just give simple commands to each character such as "attack" this, "cast" this spell, or "use" this. You can then sit back and watch the fireworks (often quite literally) without any additional tactical positioning or other maneuvers. This light mode is not necessarily a bad thing. It just depends on the taste of the gamer. Some games combine the world view and the combat view. More often than not this combination still includes a battle mode, though it is not absolutely necessary. Indeed, it may be embarrassing to accidentally click and kill the damsel in distress to whom you are coming to rescue. Proving such division may therefore be helpful. On the other hand, real time battle is not necessarily always a good thing. A turn-based battle gives you more time to think about your strategy. It is this aspect of turn-based battles that divides arcade from adventure games. Although CRPGs generally require less brainwork than adventure games, CRPGS are still more cerebral than games such as Quake.
The talk view
You can talk to different characters in almost all CRPGs. In some games, you get to talk to another character by entering some place where the dialog automatically pops up. In most other games, you need to explicitly walk next to the character and command TALK to begin a conversation. CRPGs have generally 4 kinds of talking engines--the cut-scene, the word quiz, the multi-selection and the click-through.
Cut-scene is obvious. You walk into a room and the game takes over from you to lead you onwards (Eye of the Beholder). These cut-scenes are rarely interactive. Word quiz is somewhat of a rarity because of its tendency to generate needless player frustration. Early games in Ultima have this. The running joke of word quiz is that you type keywords you know or hope the engine recognizes (name, job) and try to guess if the NPC happens to know about the topic you are inquiring, all the while you try to pick up more keywords from listening to conversations by this and other NPCs. This kind of engine is extremely easy to make. You just need to tag text chapters with keywords and output some phrases such as "I do not know anything about that" if no match is found. Multi-selection is used in many CRPGs and adventure games. The NPC raps some fixed amount of dialog and then gives the player a handful choice of different responses. How these choices appear to the player is another matter. One way of making this sort of chat is to make a simple script language and build each chat into scripts full of nodes. Each node is a subroutine, including text output blocks, flag checks, flag sets, and response possibilities. During a conversation, the player acquires a pile of flags, letting the talk engine know if the player has gained a specific knowledge necessary to move the game forward (Outcast, Ultima VIII). A simpler way of implementing such chat function is in Gabriel Knight where the chat resembles more like a tree view than a cluster of nodes. Click-through is most commonly found in console-based CRPGs (Final Fantasy VII). You talk to someone and follow some pre-written conversations, with the rare yes/no questions in between.
The talk view does not need to be completely different from the world view. For example, whatever a character says can appear in a text box floating over the character' head. In some games, the shop view and talk view are combined (Ultima V, Fallout 2), but again it is not always true (AD&D Gold Box games).
The shop view
Most CRPGs have shops. The shop view is not a requirement. Some games (Dungeon Master) do not have shops if you do not count the "resurrection" machines". Shop view is often a completely different view from the others, in where you can browse through the shop inventory and make choices. In some games a hospital can be considered to be a shop, since you buy a healing item the same way you can buy the dragon-bone crossbow of death (Zeliard, Little Big Adventure, Zelda). Shop views come in all shapes and sizes. No two games have exactly the same solution. Some games tie it closely to the inventory view (Betrayal at Krondor, Escape from Hell) or the world view (Nethack, Little Big Adventure), while other games keep it completely separate (Final Fantasy VII).
Very often, shop views have such distinct interfaces that they seem to have been just plugged into the game. Perhaps this is because there does not appear to be any better way to do it otherwise. It is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because shopping is something you may do often, something you may do a lot, or something you may not want to waste too much time on. It is a curse because it naturally breaks the illusion of immersion into the game. While the shop view is sometimes combined with the talk view, I have yet to see a CRPG where the party can get kicked out of a shop due to some insulting conversation without having an opportunity to close a deal first.
The personal view
In the context of this article, the personal view refers the technical view of the game characters. How many intelligence points the character has? What is the character's experience level? This view also includes the inventory pile and inventory slots. The personal view does not need to include all of these elements. In fact, it does not even need to be seen anywhere on screen, although its existence in many CRPGs adds a lot to the ambience of the game. All CRPGs, however, track these attributes, particularly the experience attribute. In more elaborate CRPGs (Dungeon Master), several experiences are tracked simultaneously.
Inventory slots are places where the character can wear items of possession. In the most complex iteration of this view you can put a ring in each finger of the character or dress the character up with a chainmail shirt but leather leggings and plate-mail helmet (Ultima). In other games (Fallout), a simplified inventory is used instead where you have only 2 weapon slots (left and right hand) and 1 armor slot. Naturally, these slots are not required if the character can only carry 1 weapon at a time (Final Fantasy VII). Inventory pile is a generalization of the inventory slots. Some games (Ultima Underworld) include a stack of inventory slots where you can have a backpack which itself holds more inventory slots. This adds to the realism of the game but can be tiring when the player needs to search through all the sacks and bags for a troll gate key while the angry red dragon breathes down the player's neck!
The inventory view is sometimes included in the main view as a panel, limiting the size of the world view (Ultima Underworld). Most often, it is a completely separate view (Final Fantasy VII, Fallout). Methods to manipulate inventory items also vary depending on the complexity of the game. Some games allow the player to perform distinct functions such as repairing an item (Betrayal at Krondor, Ultima Underworld) where as other games only allow for a catchall use/drop/drag function (Fallout).
The NPC engine
NPC isa character who is not under the player's control. The NPC engine is sadly the least thought out element in CRPGs. Some games do not even have one, replacing it with simple static shops with which you can talk (in the talk view). Even earlier Ultima games (Ultima IV) has a rather complex NPC engine, where the shopkeeper can be found at home during the night and in his shop during the day as well as can be seen walking from one place to another. A NPC can even ask people to leave the shop when it is near closing time or call for guards when the player starts to misbehave. To the extreme, the NPC can remember a disruptive player and charges the player more for the services or even refuses to cooperate. In most cases (Fallout 2), the NPCs behave in a manner similar to this but not quite this far.
The NPC engine can be even more complex, such as the inclusion of travelers who go from place to place, pick up rumors, news, and items. Player can then meet these travelers on the road and hear the news or even travel together as a party. However, a complex NPC engine may introduce unpredictable character interactions and bugs into the game.
For a CRPG to move along, some sort of storyboard engine is needed. Some games have very loose storylines (Bard's Tale, Ultima). Events happen only when you fight someone or find some item of importance. Many CRPGs employ levels (Nethack, Dungeon Master) to gauge the game's progress. In these games the player never gets the feeling of not knowing what should be done next (not so in Ultima). In other games, when you solve a large problem or kill a big beast, a pre-scripted event occurs (Outcast, Final Fantasy VII, Pool of Radiance, Fallout 2) to propel the story forward. Limiting the player's movement by some obstacles and moving the story along whenever these obstacles are crossed works well in a CRPG (Final Fantasy VII, Zelda). Some games do not limit the player's movement at all, and it can be rather confusing when the poor warrior stumbles upon an ancient UFO without any prior warning or hint on what to do next (Might and Magic III, Bard's Tale).
Naturally, all these engines must be bound together—the more seamlessly, the better. What engines to combine? What to leave out? What to add?
Underneath all CRPGs lies the RPG data engine that is responsible for tracking and dictating experiences, checking flags, and counting inventories. One element that must be carefully considered is the choice of data that should be saved in the saved games. Is it necessary to track every single item the player drops in the wilderness? What about all the NPC stats? When can the player save? Very few CRPGs let you save in the middle of a battle, and other CRPGs even limit saves to only certain spots (Final Fantasy VII saving posts).
The RPG in CRPG
It is worthwhile to look back in history to check which parts of traditional RPGs have already made the transition to the CRPGs and which parts may still be on the move. RPGs are not, despite popular belief, a dice-rolling game. It is true that early RPG designs such as D&D and AD&D tend to focus more on dice rolling than role-playing. Later designs such as GURPS (Generic Universal Role Playing System), however, encourage the players to focus more on role-playing instead.
Among the common arguments when comparing different RPGs is whether realism is good for a game how much realism is good for a game. Some RPGs (RuneQuest) record hit points for each body part, so that if your left hand is broken your shield is pretty useless as well. Rolemaster system contains hundreds of tables which you must scan through when in battle. These, while being more realistic than the simpler hit point system in D&D, slow the gameplay down enormously. Yet, a computer can easily handle these complex tables to make such a battle system work in a CRPG. Some RPGs (Hero's Quest) employ the concept of "learning by doing". If a character plays a lot of chess, you should expect the character to eventually develop an expertise in playing that game.
So what makes a great CRPG? First of all, a CRPG based on GURPS is better than one based on AD&D. Compare Pool of Radiance with Fallout 2. Why? AD&D is a rudimentary RPG system that is more based on dice rolling than actual role-playing and contains lots of strange rules and idiosyncrasies such as "wizards cannot wear platemail". In contrast, while GURPS may have similar rules against wizards wearing platemail, the reason may be because wizards have too fragile frames to carry the armor.
A great CRPG should have a believable and working world (Zelda 64, Final Fantasy VII, Fallout 2). Characters should feel alive, especially the main protagonist that the player represents. Characters should remember, learn, and move along with their lives. Time should flow. Weather should change. Contrary to proper belief, a good way to make the player feel for the character in a CRPG is to use a third person rather than a first person view. It is far easier to feel sorry for Link in Zelda than the hacker in System Shock. After all, those mutants shoot you, not the hacker. Characters should grow in ways other than just experience. The game should allow the characters to feel differently about different aspects and changes of the world. A great CRPG should have a strong story and truckload of subquests. The game should start with a small area but gradually expands. For example, if you are an apprentice of a wizard, your first mission may be to kill all the rats in the garden. If you try to leave the yard, the game should signal you through your character such as by saying, "I really should finish with those rats." Following this, the wizard may send you on an errand to a nearby village where you may catch some pieces of a larger story. The next errand may be to a nearby city, and perhaps that errand starts to feel less important when a dragon comes and grabs the cute princess whom you just meet. This sort of "shopping trip turns into interplanetary politics" storyline has been used in many games with success (Fallout2, Outcast). Finally, a great CRPG should have an intuitive interface system that helps the player to get inside the game world (Zelda) and not one that detracts the player from it (Bard's Tale, Escape from Hell).
All in all, programming a good CRPG is a rather daunting project. Building a CRPG using the guidelines discussed above means the inclusion of a minimum of 3-4 script languages, 3 different editors (map, NPC, shop), along with all the artworks, voiceovers, and other gameplay enhancements. In other words, designing an ideal CRPG is no easy task.