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Shawn Delahunty's picture

Musing on "Meaningfulness" in CRPG's - Part 3:

Ok, here we go. Part 3 of 3, at loooong last--sorry about the delay. I must tell you that I've been anticipating posting this blog entry for days and it has been a blast to think about and to put together. Before I completely say goodbye to Part #1 and Part #2 of this blog post though, I want to provide a summary of where I stand on the CRPG vs. MMORPG debate that began my "Musing":

  1. I must grudgingly accept that the conclusions which Matt Barton made in Dungeons and Desktops are correct; namely his prediction that single-player CRPGs will be supplanted, at least in their current form, by the MMORPG. It's been happening since 2002 or thereabouts, and has accelerated. Whether this is 'inevitable' or 'permanent' is highly debatable, but I've gone on enough tangents in that regard.
  2. One point I didn't make clear in my original posts: I OVERWHELMINGLY agree with the good Doctor that to stand out in the marketplace near-term, CRPGs will indeed have to focus on thick, engaging story lines, and interesting development of characters. This is the EASIEST route for CRPG developers to follow, as it plays to the strengths of the medium. As he pointed out in Dungeons and Desktops, the fundamental structure of the MMORPG, comprised of thousands of simultaneous players, virtually prohibits this possibility of an engaging and deep story.
  3. - I do not completely agree that MMORPGs, "..can do a better job.." of providing:
    • - A rewarding "hack 'N slash" experience, with complex tactics, strategies, interactions, and so on.
    • - A huge and interactive gameworld to explore.

To be clear, I DO think that MMORPGs are currently doing a significantly better job of providing these experiences. Though what constitutes a genuinely 'interactive gameworld' is still up for grabs, in my opinion. (I will detail more of this in my next blog-posting, when I give my take on WoW.) The MMORPG is currently outclassing the CRPG because of a combination of factors--all them driven by money. To be clear, I mean truly insane amounts of money being slurped in by the behavior-modification/alien-mind-control experts at Blizzard.
But as I yammered about earlier, I don't like this situation, nor do I think it must be the case. I also think that the CRPG form can exceed the MMORPG in this regard--if some changes and improvements are made; BIG ONES. This is the hardest route for CRPG developers to follow, as it's going to require some truly staggering amounts of work and technical innovation.

Now though, on to the conclusion of this blog topic! Time to explore what features and options and capabilities I believe would comprise my own, personal, "Ulitmate CRPG". So what am I after? Here's a list of things, in no real order.

  1. The chance to either go "stat-heavy", or to basically ignore the stat-management aspect of the game. This might seem contradictory, but is easy enough to implement in the programming. When a character gains a level of experience, depending on which mode is selected, the game will just use an auto-allocate formula (based on character class, secondary profession choices, alignment/morality/ethic choices made during the game, etc.) or I can micro-manage the thing to my heart's content.
  2. Detailed control over game-engine behavior, apart from the Easy/Medium/Hard/Insane difficulty options:
    • - worry about food/water, or ignore it
    • - worry about sleep/rest, or ignore it
    • - worry about item durability/wear, or ignore it
    • - worry about weather effects on game-play, or ignore it
    • - worry about magical item "recharge", or overcharge/explosion, or ignore it
    • - strict carry-weight/encumberance limitations, or the ability to ignore them (controlling item stacking)

    There could be some consequences of these choices too. As an example; if the user decides to ignore "item durability", then perhaps certain special/magical weapons would be excluded from the "loot drop" generation. There are other possibilities for 'rewarding' the more hardcore players, but doing so should not unduly restrict the more 'casual' player.

  3. Capability for extremely fine-grained control over the real-time vs. turn-based spectrum of behavior. The Bioware games Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II offered this in a wonderful form, as well as the Black Isle game Planescape: Torment.

    EDIT: Thanks to 'Jaeson' for posting to point out my silly typo, lumping Planescape: Torment in with the Baldur's series.


    You can trigger an "auto pause" feature after certain conditions hit in-game:

    • - an attack on one of the players
    • - a hit by one of the players
    • - a hit by an enemy NPC
    • - etc.
  4. Skill-trees that are tied to "actual in-game behavior." As an example: More time spent wielding a short-sword, regardless of character level, means the character gets 'better' with that weapon. I'm not talking about class-restrictions on weapons (clerics wield maces but no blades, rogues can't use pole-weapons, etc.) nor am I talking about class-bonuses for weapons either. What I mean is; if a player decided to "grind" for a while, even on really low-level stuff, they can improve their skill with their weapon--to a point. Some games offer 'trainer' NPCs who offer improvements with given weapons, and this is fine, but it's usually capped behavior. Naturally there should be a diminishing returns limit to this kind of thing, but to encourage the player "special moves" can be unlocked in this fashion.
  5. The dynamic generation of quests. In addition to the pre-made, canned stuff, the game engine should generate various quests based on what the NPC and AI logic encounter in the game. Here's an example of what I mean:

    A group of AI thugs, instead of just 'lurking ominously' around the same drab patch of forest, ought to get bigger and tougher if they aren't put in check by the player or NPC AI. Soon, instead of robbing stray travelers, robbing the local village might seem like a grand idea. At the point a NPC family's heirloom is stolen, they would naturally be anxious to get it back--hence the game generates a quest, which the player can accept or ignore when they wander through.

    One game that does this kind of "dynamic quest with accept/ignore consequences" is Din's Curse by Soldak Entertainment. While I don't love the game, the fact that there are real, tangible, visible consequences for actions, that there are dynamically changing quests, is a wonderful addition to the CRPG genre.

  6. Secondary or "profession" skills which _matter_, which affect game-play, which affect how players are "perceived" by the NPC/AI of the game. Gathering herbs for a long time ought to get you a good discount from the village alchemist on potions and the like. There should be "dynamically generated quests" which play into the secondary-skill/profession choices made by the player.
  7. Secondary or "profession" skills, done in a way that makes sense. Too many games treat the player like a moron--offering in-game skills like 'fishing' which the player is NOT EVEN ALLOWED TO TRY?!?? How hard do the designers think it actually IS to fish? Sure, I might suck at it initially, and perhaps can only advance past a certain point by finding a "fishing trainer", but the whole notion of not even being able to "try" the skill without paying for it is ludicrous. I buy a pole, I cast a line, I have some chance of catching a stupid fish. Simple.
  8. The ability to actually try things with some hope of success. I have a good example: In the Eschalon: Book I & II games (from Basilisk Games), there is the typical fantasy-CRPG 'Alchemy' skill. You collect various items to combine to make potions; 'reagents' vs. 'reactants' are the phrases used in-game. You are allowed to TRY mixing various things, though often enough you end up blowing up the flask, destroying the ingredients, and incurring damage on your character in the process.

    This is a fantastic thing! Eschalon does one thing wrong in this regard though. While your current "Alchemy" stat affects the percentage chance-of-success, you cannot raise that stat without gaining levels in the typical fashion. If I continue to successfully mix things, not blowing myself up, after X number of successes my "Alchemy" stat SHOULD INCREASE.

  9. The ability to try things in order to "identify" them. I get sick of traipsing halfway across a game-world, down through 8 layers of dungeon, only to find something that I then have to take to someone to ID for me. Yes, aiming an unknown wand at a monster might be fraught with danger. Yes, slapping on unknown magic armor can be problematic when it semi-permanently attaches to my skull and lowers my IQ to 3. Yes, drinking an "Exploding Incendiary Oil-Potion of Reeking Troll Innards" probably won't sit well on my stomach. But when I put on an unknown helmet, and notice that I disappear from view, that's a "Wicked Cool Thing"(TM)(R)(c)(mouse).

    I should still be allowed to TRY it. The original text/ASCII dungeon crawl CRPGs like Moria, Rogue, Angband, et al, allowed you to do this. More often that not, it was like playing Russian-roulette with with a bazooka. By by God, it was FUN!! Even in a perma-death game, it was a blast.

  10. Items that I "identify" through; guessing, trial-and-error, temporarily boosted IQ or Wisdom, random lunar alignment, all SHOULD STAY IDENTIFIED.
  11. A "fatigue" stat, for tactical combat. I need to be able to RUN AWAY from a battle. Too many games do not allow for a temporary boost of panic-induced speed. No, I shouldn't be able to keep it up forever. Gothic 3 does this well, with a "fatigue bar" that drains when running/fighting/fast-attacking/etc. The bar recharges slowly when walking, faster when standing still.
  12. A good mix of procedurally/algorithmically-generated content (i.e. randomized dungeons like Rogue, Diablo, et al) and "designer planned" stuff. And I'm referring to more than simply an (A) or (B) scenario here--cities are "planned", dungeons are "random". I would like to play games where "chunks" of the world can be planned out, but those are then blended by the game engine with the randomized bits. In this way a designer could build some of the "lego blocks" of a world, but the engine could put them together in a sensible fashion.
  13. The world should be "physics based", at least insofar as it makes sense within the game universe being created. If I have a massive fight with fire-breathing dragons, in the middle of the hayfield, the hayfield ought to catch fire and burn a bit. If I get into a lightning-bolt battle with another wizard, we ought to be able to blow chunks out of the game-world as well as each other--and those chunks ought to stay gone. The game-world itself should be "malleable" in that sense--Dwarf Fortress does some truly amazing stuff along these lines.
  14. The game should support "user-modding", absolutely. Perhaps not immediately, but at a certain point after release, providing this ability can extend the life of a game in unbelievable ways. Several very successful game companies have done this, id Software, Valve, and until recently, Blizzard. There's a great article on this for two upcoming games:
    BitMob article on Torchlight 2 and Grim Dawn
    Valve deserves particular recognition in this area. To this very day, they continue to sell copies of the "Orange Box" pack of games, including the original Half-Life, and all the follow-on games which started as user-mods.
  15. A deep, interactive, SINGLE-player world. Something that feels pristine when I enter it. Something that remains pristine when I leave to eat dinner, or go to the bathroom. Or drop the game for 2 months because of work. Multi-player functionality is fine, but I am FED UP with companies that "toss in" a single-player mode that barely qualifies as a tech-demo for the engine.
  16. Here's a biggie: The option for what I would describe as "localized" or "limited" multi-player mode. Diablo 1 offered a head-to-head gameplay which made the game much more re-playable, by introducing new battle-tactics. I liked this a lot, probably because:
    • - it recaptured some of the feel of the D&D sessions I loved so much.
    • - I could control WHO played the game with me.
    • - The other player was 'local', meaning we could converse in real-time, keeping up the role-playing aspect at least in part. We could also rag on each other mercilessly--smack talk being a delightful, guilty pleasure at times.

    I have coined a new term for this hybrid, the "MODMOO-RPG", or the "Moderately Multi-player Online/Offline RPG". With this gaming model, you would:

    • - Be able to set up private hosting servers. This could be a bunch of friends having a LAN-party in someone's house over the weekend, or a group of geographically separated folks who are yakking it up over VoIP while playing. The one who hosts the server, acts as a DM, and has the option to "freeze" the game-world to resolve disputes, for chat-breaks, for bathroom breaks, etc. Also, critically, the DM or super-player/server-host would have the option to boot out obnoxious players. This might be done for multiple reasons; whether for behavior, refusal to role-play in voice-chat, or whatever.
    • - This type of implementation maintains PRIVACY: There would be zero requirement that ANY company or marketing entity be able to study/know anything about the players' "Online gaming habits". (If you added this as a defaulted-OFF option, which the DM could choose to enable, fine. Some people, even me sometimes, want to give feedback to developers we like.)
    • - Offer a centralized "pub" or "chat" available via the company website/server which assists in the discovery of other, non-local players. This keeps the "socializing" element which Matt describes in his book in a separate venue, yet makes it easier/more reasonable to "enforce" proper "role-playing" when actually in a privately-hosted network gaming session
    • - This inherently LIMITS the number of players in a session, which is a good thing from my point of view. (Feels less like there have been 28,000 newbs traipsing through the dungeon/forest ahead of me, leaving only the detritus of McDonald's WoW-meals blowing around in the crushed weeds...) In WoW terms, think of it like this; the entire game, not just one section, would be treated as an "instance".

The MODMOO-RPG would have several other benefits, from my point of view, which could make the gameplay MEANINGFUL for me:

  • - It forces the developers to focus on AI and the content-generation methods to support it, as the "Moderately-Multiplayer" mimics/overlaps the "Single-Player" mode enough to require the AI to actually, you know, _WORK_. (Yes, as a programmer, I do realize just how damn difficult a problem this presents. i still think it can be done.)
  • - It encourages folks to get more involved in "user generated" content for Mods, campaigns and the like.
  • - This could actually provide a possible additional revenue stream to appease the "Mighty, Mighty Beancounters". User groups would be willing to purchase the "Officially Sanctioned" gaming "modules" like table-top D&D, with all of the attendant artwork/music/sound/voices/characters/scripting/and-so-on.

---

Next up, a couple more items on my wish-list:

  1. The game must both challenge and entertain me. For myself, while that does include a healthy dose of great storytelling and characterization, it ALSO must include the things that Matt thinks MMORPGs can do better. Namely, it must provide things like "stat building", "phat lewt", and some heaping gobs of good old "hack 'N slash" action. (NOTE: I'm not talking about "grinding" here. Epic battles are only EPIC, when they have meaning. Yes, this links back to Matt's point about CRPGs needing to, "...focus on story..." but I feel it's more than that.)
  2. The game-world should also be huge; truly immense. Yes, the truckloads of money being dropped off at Blizzard make it much more enticing for the developer to develop huge, sprawling game worlds. But games like Gothic from Piranha Bytes, show that you can create huge single-player game worlds. Also, my earlier comment about supporting and endorsing fan-based mods for the game comes into play directly here. It's quite possible to get enormous amounts of content generated by the players, which extend a game's life by years.

---

And now, my list of wishes and pet-peeves which are centered around the topic of "Breaking Immersion", "Destroying the player's Suspension of Disbelief", etc. It's like some games go out of their way to set the player up, get them rolling, then do every conceivable thing possible to ruin the experience.

  1. - Tossing inventory items on the ground should NOT "destroy it". I've done this by accident in some games, with some very useful and valuable items. Further, I've done it in games with unique/quest-items which then cause a "state lockup" in the game engine. In short, because that item no longer exists, there is no way to proceed into certain portions of the game content.
    • - Sure, it should be possible for the things I drop on the ground to be "looted" by other players, by NPC's, etc., if I head off to raid the next town for a couple of days. But if I drop junk on the ground in front of me, to sort out the pile of crap overloading my backpack, the stuff ought to still laying there in front of me two minutes later.
    • - As an alternative to destruction/theft, have stray items picked up and returned "into the economy" by a scavenging AI process when player(s) located far enough away. This should definitely be the case if we're talking about "quest critical" items.
    • - An even better solution would be to have a NEW QUEST generated at some point. If I drop some unknown item early in the game, but it actually is important, the game later creates the, "Search for the Long-Lost, Missing Kazoo of Sexiness". Program the game-engine to handle this kind of quest-generation based on certain parameters (see my other thoughts on dynamic and varying quest generation within the game universe.)
  2. Eliminate the "game on rails". Premade levels should avoid the "only 1 true path through" syndrome. Procedurally generated stuff should have "clean up code" which adds in multiple pathways as well. Only with "Epic Battle" kinds of thing does a single choke-point make sense. If you are building it in as a plot-point, or tactical play point, fine--but choose such things carefully.
  3. No "pointless" grinding, just to get XP to overcome some boss monster. Grinding was novel in the CRPG form when Wizardry: The Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord introduced it. That was in 1981. It grew a tad tiresome when The Bard's Tale used the same method. We are now 30 years on, and it's frankly ridiculous that we keep hitting this. Eliminating "mandatory grinding" has other repercussions too:
    • - No "trash" mobs as a requirement. Perhaps provide them, as an option for players who want to try out some truly massive, "area of effect" spells. But organize any pre-made levels to have alternate routes to avoid that sort of thing.
    • - The designers will have to focus on other, much more creative methods to ensure that the player can get to an appropriate skill-/power-level to venture into the tougher parts of the game.
  4. No "respawns" or "corpse fade-outs" while the player is looking. YUCK. Playwrights, screenwriters, and novelists know how fragile the, "suspension of disbelief" can be. And they also recognize that without it, a great tale falls flat. Why don't game-designers get this? It's especially annoying when all that happens, is the repeated creation of "trash mobs" so the game can pretend to, "dynamically scale difficulty against player ability." A review written by Brad Gallaway, openly mocked this sort of pathetic game-design in Dragon_Age_II. He reported that,

    "...new reinforcement troops literally dropped out of the sky onto my party. I could hardly believe my eyes. From any perspective, this out-of-nowhere ambush method is a pile of steaming garbage."

  5. Actual, sensible "PERSISTENCE" in the world. If I blow a crater in the ground fighting a troll, the thing shouldn't be filled in for a while. An exact replacement tree shouldn't be growing there when I wander back through next week. (Unless the ground is "enchanted". Which should be a clue to some other in-game content, and not merely an excuse to have the engine "refresh" or "reset" the world when no-one is looking..) If a tribe of aquatic, semi-sentient frogs keeps getting wiped out at a particular part of a big lake because a human village expands nearby--they would sensibly move somewhere else. They won't go away completely, they won't keep attacking the human village; they would move.
  6. MAPS.
    • - Some should be flawed--they're hand-sketched things within the context the game universe, after all. Farmer Bob's map to the "Magical Growing Shovel" probably won't be 100% accurate or to scale.
    • - There should be more than 1 map available for game regions/zones, unless the POINT is that the area is "unknown to all but a few."
    • - I prefer auto-mapping. To be clear, even I think graph paper is a pain in the ass. However, to retain some of the "feel" of real exploration, there should be a game difficulty-setting. On "Hard", the auto-map should NOT just automatically note every single important detail as you wander the world. However, this opens up a gameplay opportunity too; the player should be able to "pin/mark" important locations and write notes on the thing.
    • - The Eschalon: Book I & II games has an interesting take on mapping, whereby a "mapping skill" improves the quality of the auto-maps detail when exploring the "unknown/fogged areas". (However Eschalon also screwed this feature up in a serious way too. If you boost your mapping-skill magically, explore a new area, then remove the spell/enchantment, your previously auto-mapped areas 'degrade' back to your current level. Dumb.)
  7. Better intelligence in the ubiquitous "Random encounters" of the CRPG.
    • - If a level 50+ player returns to a "newbie" area for some reason, the game engine needs to not throw "level 1-2" encounters at them. A random-spawn might make sense, but the AI should be intelligent enough to know that it's going to be ground into FINE GREY POWDER--and a "realistic" action would be to run away.
    • - Don't just have random encounters "everywhere". It must be intelligently placed, by zone or area. This is true both if the level is designed by hand, or if it is procedurally-generated. Just having the things scattered everywhere, using the rationale that "hey, it's a dungeon/dark-forest/evil-swamp", doesn't fly anymore. This isn't 1985. (An exception could be made here for things like _Sword_of_Fargoal_ type games--the whole game itself is designed around quickie, retro-styled play.)
    • - If the player has been through an area recently, and 'cleared it', the engine should be coded intelligently so that it doesn't keep re-spawning randoms. Where would they be coming from? If there isn't some conceivable path for them to keep wandering in there, they shouldn't BE there.

*pant* *pant* *pant*

Er, I think that's it--I'm done. I've got probably 6 or 7 thousand more ideas for what would make a CRPG "Meaningful", but my fingers hurt, and that's plenty of points to consider. (Some folks likely are thinking, "That's way more than 'plenty' already bub.") I hope I've given a better picture of what I look for in a game, and what kinds of innovations I think are possible. It remains to be seen where the world of RPGs goes, but I for one am rooting mightily for the classic CRPG.

Until next time then! May the RNG be kind, and may your "Staff of Delightful Backscratching +4" never fail you.

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