Future of Single Player CRPGs

Matt Barton's picture

Want to make a good single player CRPG?Want to make a good single player CRPG?Probably the hardest part of my new book to write was the conclusion, where I tried to think about the future of our favorite genre: the standalone, single-player CRPG. That genre includes all the classic Ultimas, Bard's Tale, Gold Box games, and so on. It's all the genre that has suffered the most attrition from game developers and publishers, though the better ones still attract mainstream attention (Oblivion, Mass Effect). What I want to do here is focus on a few subgenres, if you will, that to my mind have the best chance of thriving in the current market. I will naturally focus on PC games, though where possible these concepts could be applied to any of the new consoles.

Why not another MMO?
The "default setting" of most modern developers when it comes to RPGs is "MMO." Everyone can see how amazingly successful Blizzard has been with World of Warcraft (9 million something subscribers last time I looked), and it's not surprising to see that every other major developer wants a piece of that. I recently saw a figure that indicated it'd take a billion dollar investment to compete with World of Warcraft on anything like equal terms. A billion! Only very major publishers indeed can afford that. And, yes, I've heard about all the classic developers coming out with new MMOs; there's Garriott's Tabala Rasa and now, more recently, Nolan Bushnell has announced plans. I don't think these will come to much. The one thing that gives me pause is that Garriott's project is more action based. One of the weaknesses of WOW is that you are mostly just sitting around waiting for counters to build up so you can strike out again. If Garriott can nail this problem somehow, keeping up a more constant stream of action, then it might give him a boost. However, that's assuming the rest of the game is as good if not better than the competition. To my mind, if Final Fantasy Online can't compete with WOW, no one can, since that project had the millions of slobbering fanboys behind it.

In short, I'd stay away from MMOs if I didn't have a billion dollar budget, and even then I'd steer clear unless I was confident I could offer a substantially better package than Blizzard. That'd mean a much larger and more detailed gameworld, better graphics, better minigames, more interesting character types, more models, etc. You'd have to beat them in each area, but even then it'd come to naught without the bodies. Since most of the potential players are on WOW now, you could expect them to be constantly thinking "Well, they did it THIS way in WOW; why change; this sucks" etc.

Besides, there are much better ways for a smaller developer than to go to head to head with Blizzard.

Why not something like an MMO?
Here's the most popular answer to the MMO problem: let's just make a single-player game, but make it as much like WOW as possible. I put Oblivion and Dungeon Siege II into this category. These games duplicate much of the gameplay, and try to make up for the loss of other players by making incredibly detailed AIs and of course gorgeous graphics. It is rather like wondering around a WOW server where all the other players are controlled by bots.

I think this model is doomed. Sure, there are plenty of tightwads out there who think the $15 a month fee is just too steep to ever pay, so they'd rather have about 10% of the fun for a one-time payment of $60. So it goes. But this demographic isn't what I'd be striving to meet, and chances are if they're that tight they probably pirated the game anyway. There is also the leveling problem; who cares if you have a level 70 shaman with all the greatest gear if you can't show it off to anyone? The pride factor just isn't there. One of the big reasons WOW is popular is that so many know it; you get a small amount of "nerd cred" just by telling people you have that level 70. Who cares if you beat Oblivion?

Ratchet up the Turn-Based Combat
Many of the great classics offered compelling turn-based combat that was comparable to a good wargame or strategy game. Examples are numerous, but include Wizard's Crown and Pool of Radiance. The latest example I can think of are Temple of Elemental Evil. It is quite possible to make a really good CRPG based on turn-based combat, because the setup allows players to put much more strategy and tactics into the combat sequences. Thus, since everything isn't happening in a blur of action, you can find time for niceties; complicated spell routines, better coordinated attack plans, etc.

With the superb interface examples out there, it'd be easy enough to make a CRPG with battles that were far complex than the famous Wizard's Crown, but also manageable. Helpful menus, tool tips, macros, and the like could reduce the pain of a cumbersome interface. Obviously the game would need great AI; no need to waste this detail on monsters who plod dumbly into every obvious trap.

At any rate, I think this is one area where a great CRPG developer could really offer a real alternative to the MMO. I can imagine a game where the battles eventually take hours to complete, with a multitude of options and tactics available to really make something special. Imagine something like Pool of Radiance on steroids and you get the picture.

MMOs can't do turn-based because the server can't just stop while every player ponders the next move. Since the clock never stops, the strategies have to be kept relatively simple. This is pure hell for more tactical minds--people who would buy a good turn-based game.

More Story, More Characters
Another target area concerns stories and characters, which are very weak on MMOs. The MMO has to be built like a theme park, so that everyone comes through gets the same experience. No one can be singled out, because that wouldn't be fair to the rest. No one builds a roller coaster for just one person to ride on.

Betrayal in Antara: A nice blend of turn-based combat and story.Betrayal in Antara: A nice blend of turn-based combat and story.Consider Baldur's Gate, Fall Out, or Planescape: Torment, and how the whole story revolved around the main character. You *matter* in those games. Compare that to the typical MMO experience, where you are just one more warrior, etc.

A single player game can really put the player into a compelling role, support that drama with sharply developed and intriguing characters, and draw the whole thing together with a riveting plot. I *never* remember playing Baldur's Gate II and thinking, "Damn, I wish there were 10,000 other people in this world with me." The only reason people thought that was important with Diablo was that the game lacked that gripping story and characters. You could open the floodgates.

A single-player game could really follow the example of the better Final Fantasy games, Chrono Trigger, etc. I think that's the reason the FF online game failed; those guys were masters of story and characters, the two things that never work in MMO. Try to make a generic MMO out of Chrono Trigger; you can't do it.

Consider also the Star Wars Galaxies vs. Star Words LOTOR. What would you rather be, the savior of the universe or just one more Jedi or storm trooper? While the Star Wars world is fascinating and richly developed, I'm just not sure it's appealing enough for me to be content just playing a generic role there. I want to be Luke Skywalker. Same thing for Tolkien; as compelling as that scenery was, the big thing is being an important character in that saga (i.e., Aragorn--not one of the many lookalike warriors fighting in those huge battles).

More Action
The final area where it's possible to one-up the MMO is in action. For obvious reasons, it's hard to have players in these games have too much direct control over characters, since that would require too much bandwidth. Thus, a single player game could ratchet up the action. However, I've personally never been very impressed with "action CRPGs" of any sort, preferring instead the more tactical or story-based games. Nevertheless, it could be done well.

The Best New Single Player CRPG
So, if I were put in charge of a new single-player CRPG and given a budget to work with, I'd be working on a story-based game that offered exquisite turn-based combat. There are models to work from, but the game I'd begin with is Raymond E. Feist's Betrayal at Krondor. I think Sierra was really on to something with that game; it only failed because the production values weren't there. Nevertheless, the game did a great job of involving the player in a good story with a good supporting cast of characters, and the turn-based combat was just detailed enough to be interesting but not overwhelming.

I'd like to see a modern game like Betrayal at Krondor. Update the graphics, make it true 3D, etc., but keep the detailed story and characters and turn-based combat. In fact, I'd expand these elements, so that by the end of the game the player was really working through some epic battles with hundreds (thousands?) of strategically important decisions. And yes, I know about Return to Krondor, but that game again suffered from bad production values. We can do better.

The one area I'd shy away from is action, though of course that's been done successfully, too (Deus Ex). The problem I see with action is that it tends to take over the game; why put thought into a CRPG structure if you can win just by being fast on the draw?

I doubt any major developer will follow the ideas I've laid out here, and I offer them freely to any independent developer who wants to make a great new game with potential to carve a niche. I'd focus first on writing a good story with lots of interesting twists and characters, then start thinking about the battles and how to make them something truly remarkable. Avoid repetitive random encounters and the like; fewer battles at higher stakes are better. Also, don't neglect to add a "quick resolution" type option for low-stakes battles. Good luck!

Comments

Bill Loguidice
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Nice blog, Matt

What I'd like to see is a good spy-themed RPG, something casting the player in the role of a James Bond type, a la the classic Top Secret from TSR. I realize there are more action-based spy simulators, like the excellent Sam Fisher Tom Clancy series of games, but again, those don't allow for subtle spy-like interactions, just action, action, action. Same goes for the more over the top Metal Gear series. In short, I like your ideas, Matt, but I also finally want the distinction away from fantasy, which has been done to death. No matter how good a game is, it won't seem fresh if it sticks to the same tired fantasy paradigm. We can finally throw sci-fi in there too, as that's now been done enough for my tastes.

Also, I know it's crazy, but we've discussed it before. I wouldn't have to be the all-mighty hero in an RPG. I wouldn't mind playing the blind guy, or the deaf guy or the armless man or the wheelchair bound, etc. It would be fascinating to play a character with real physical challenges. In fact, it's funny, but back in the 80's when I was in junior high, my friends and I came up with a concept for a "regular person" pen and paper role-playing game, called "Be Arun" (an Indian friend of ours who really hated the idea). The hook was to put the players in real-life situations as real people and let them role-play it. I even have the rejection letter from TSR (that and several other letters from my youth I have on my desk to scan for fun and posting). In short, there's so much more that can be done with the genre first and foremost in my mind, then we can worry about things like mechanics and implementation.

It's actually a pity, but where the most innovation in regards to thematic variations was always the text adventure, with Infocom's releases a good example. Sure, they had plenty of fantasy-themed releases, but also humor, sci-fi, romance, mystery, drama, etc. I realize text adventures are like converted books, but the reality is if they were so successfully turned into games, then surely those text games can be turned into successful RPG's since the concept was already proven. I imagine it really wouldn't be all that difficult, even if it were a much shorter game, to take a complete text adventure and put a Gold Box-like or even modern skin on it and set the player loose. Then we'd really be talking. As it is, amateur text adventures remain the most risk-taking of all forms of electronic gaming in my opinion, exploring every theme and possibility under the sun.



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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.

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Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
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Thanks for the kind words and good ideas, Bill. I agree very much with the need for non-fantasy CRPGs. That said, I don't think they've been done to death. It's a workable model with lots of room for variation, and people are resistant to change. I looked at several MMOs that made an intentional break away from the stereotypical fantasy, and they mostly flopped (Asheron's Call springs to mind). I have been struck watching Farscape how the character types could just as easily been star trek characters (klingons, vulcans, betazeds etc.) It's very hard to really do anything radically different and have people like it. It's not just a coincidence that klingons make for good sci fi material; they work and are easy to integrate into a story. That's where Enterprise went wrong, mucking with the stereotypes too much until it was just a big mess. Crack whore Vulcan in a cat suit? I rest my case.

That said, you can mess with the stereotypes in creative ways if you're sensible and have a long-term vision. Take Drizzt from Forgotten Realms. A drow with a conscious? But it works, because they had a long-term plan for him and stuck with it. Then again, look at Dragonlance--almost every character is a stereotype, but it works because they are allowed to develop beyond that. Compare that to the Conan novels.

I was struck (really felt like lightning!!!) when I read a book that listed all the available tabletop RPGs out there. There are thousands and thousands, to the point where the guy had to break them up into genres. It was FASCINATING. There were lots of RPGs dedicated to spy/espionage, historical periods, world wars, and so on. So much fodder there for CRPGs; it makes the mind reel. The GURPS system really opens up some interesting possibilities as well, since that's basically a universal RPG system that can be applied to cover almost anything you can imagine.

I also like the "ordinary guy" thing, but have seen it done in many games. The ultimas, in fact, seem to fit that mold--take an ordinary guy and put him in an unusual situation where he can prove himself a hero. The disability angle is nice, though--I could see some good opportunities there for fun and interesting situations, and it may (gasp) help inspire empathy.

Sci-fi possibilities abound, but there is the problem there with skills. You can start a fantasy game with a completely ignorant peasant, since he can learn along the way. It doesn't make sense in a sci-fi rich setting, where these characters would have been educated and learned skills in school. Therefore you need a complicated character creation process with lots of vital decisions made *before* the game begins, and when the player doesn't know what to expect. That can be frustrating.

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