The Five Things I'd Love to See in a Modern CRPG

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Matt Barton's picture

I'm fine with these graphics; just give me gameplay.I'm fine with these graphics; just give me gameplay.It's been a long time since I've been excited about a forthcoming CRPG. I usually just find myself disappointed and then bitter when I find that the latest "CRPG" is just another mindless twitch-fest with bigger boobs than ever before. Sigh.

So, what would I like to see in a CRPG? I thought I'd provide a wishlist.

#5. Quality packaging. Yes, I know that games are data and are best distributed over the internet. But that doesn't mean that there can't also be a tangible component, such as nice printed manuals, maps, and reference cards. The goal here should be to make those "extras" not only a pleasure to hold, but truly useful in the game (i.e., no collectors' edition bullshit of interest only to fanboys). Periodically the game should refer you to them, as well, since there is nothing more boring than being asked to read a lot of text on a screen. Why not do like the old games did for copy protection, and ask you to read entry #43 in your lovely printed journal? Hellz yeah! That sure beats trying to read a bunch of stupid text on a screen, or, worse, hearing it read by some voice actor without a clue of its context. As for nitwits who can't be bothered to actually read a book, those idiots wouldn't be interested in my kind of game anyway so to hell with them.

#4. No grinding. Grinding is a means to an end. A game should not have means to ends. It should only have ends. What I mean is that everything I do should be done for no immediate purpose than for the joy of doing it. It is not fun for me to kill 42,000 of the same creature using the same tactics again and again. "Experience points" should not be awarded for that. That is not experience; that is repetition. Experience should only come from doing something new, whether good or bad, and evaluating the results. The goal of the designer should be to ensure that there's always something new to try, or at least ways to do something better. A lot of this can be solved by creating different kinds of monsters and threats, but also just from adding nuance. Huge branching skill trees can work out here, but I'd go further by having skill rhizomes.

What I mean by a skill rhizome is that rather than view skills as branches of a tree, you see them as a big mess of interconnected points. Thus, part of the thrill is learning new skills, another part is learning how to connect skills. For example, let's say you can connect your skill in skinning to your skill in alchemy to create some special potions. Or you can connect your sword and archery skills to work out some new fighting techniques. Who knows? The idea is that no skill in the game should be discrete; everything can be combined. Sure, this system would take hundreds of hours and a million bucks--so take them out of the graphics department.

#3. Well-defined and intriguing gameworld. This is an area that has really suffered, and not just in CRPGs. There are just too many games out there with really boring, predictable environments. Oh, here's the obligatory lava level...Here's the obligatory forest...Oh, a cave. Never seen that one before. Who woulda thunk it, now an underground dwarven city!

It pains me that so many game designers feel content just to rip off Tolkien again and again. I guess now they're not even going back to the source, but ripping off games that rip off Tolkien. I have to give credit to The Witcher for bothering to explore something else. What I'd really like to see is more people doing what Tolkien and Joseph Campbell did, though, and exploring the world's myths for compelling ideas. Of course, then you need to get obsessive about filling in the history of that world, not just the landscape. Too many CRPGS have landscapes, not worlds. You should never put a generic object of any sort into a game world. Why not take all the advanced tech and memory to do something useful, such as making each object unique? Compelling game worlds are not built by algorithms. They are built like theme parks, with talented people sweating over the placement of every tree and rock. I'd go further, though. That tree ought to have a story. How did that rock get there? Was it used a thousand years ago in a druidic ritual? That's the level I'm talking about here. If I find a sword, I ought to be able to figure out when and where it was made and have it make sense.

#2. Creating an entire party from scratch. This is a biggie for me. I'm so tired of only creating one character, and it's worse when that character already has a defined personality. Ugh, no! I want to come up with that stuff on my own. Also, I don't want to have to travel with canned characters, either. Indeed, a big part of the fun is creating your own set of characters and differentiating them both socially and strategically. Sometimes it's fun to do strange things, like make a party of all women, or overload the party with magic-users. This gives flexibility and versatility, and it's always fun to think about this group met and came together. Of course, I like NPCs to have a lot of personality and story-driven events, but I don't want to hear my characters talking or having to choose dialog options. Leave all that to my imagination, which is always a better fit for my experience with my characters than what any designer can come up with. Instead, just give me vague options for responding, like "hostile" or "meek." Again, this was all handled quite well in the Gold Box games, though I don't think it was ever as fully explored as it could have been. Will Wright got a lot of this right in his Sims games, by the way.

#1. Turn-based combat. This has long been my pet peeve of almost every CRPG since SSI's Gold Box series. I fell in love with that combat system, which really seems to me to be a fair approximation of the fun many of us had with miniatures back in the day. First off, the miniatures themselves are cool. Let's face it; they're toys, and toys are fun. What makes it even more fun, though, is when you can invent rules so that you introduce an external factor (dice, randomness, etc.) to guide your imagination. This is a much different kind of fun than arcade or action games, where the thrill is the dexterity. This is a much more abstract kind of thrill; the thrill of imitation (mimesis) and unnecessary obstacles. Ideally, your rule system expands in complexity and sophistication as you master each stage, growing with you as the old rules get boring. Even the gold box games suffered a bit from just giving you better weapons and such, and of course WOW is notorious for only upping the ante numerically rather than cognitively.

It'd be like a chess game where you kept saying "okay, now all the pieces are twice as powerful as they were before!" Uh, yeah...What difference does that make? Unless you allow a change to the rules, such as how a piece moves (or introduce a new piece, etc.), the so-called change is just an illusion. Yet CRPG after CRPG has done this: oh, now all your items have a +1 on the end, and the monsters have more hit points, yawn.

Action-based games build tension and excitement because you have to make rapid decisions. I'd call that more an adrenaline type of thing than what I have in mind, which is the thrill of setting things into motion and watching it play out. Compare basketball to chess. Both have strategy, etc., but the thrill is completely different.

In my opinion, turn-based is the best way to get at that chess-like type of fun. However, it can also be boring, and there's no reason to duplicate the boring stuff when you don't have to. So, what does my ideal turn-based combat look like?

First off, the interface is key. Anything routine, such as switching from distance to melee weapons, should be automated. Also, no waiting. Animations and such can play out as the player is making the next round of decisions. Thus, and this is KEY, the player is setting the pace, not the game. Too many old CRPGs (gold box included) were always making you wait and watch rather than ACT. I'm not talking here about the "active time systems" of JRPGs, mind you. If you do want to sit back and watch until everything grinds to a halt, you can. But if you are faster at making decisions, and the interface helps you by giving options to execute common tactics with a click, the pace speeds up to match. So, in short, if you're quick, the battle goes as fast as a real-time one in the action RPGs (that could be rewarding in and of itself, like setting off a whole bunch of fireworks close together rather than one at a time). I'm also thinking here of how in Magic the Gathering you can counter a spell or play certain cards when it's not your turn. So there could be a whole set of activities that are only possible when it's not your turn. In any case, the player should never be forced to sit and wait, not ever.

So that's my list. Thinking back on it, I would've added "compelling story," but the more I think about it, that's covered by the gameworld. A great gameworld will invite you to create your own stories. I'm not talking about a sandbox here; those are for cats. What I'm thinking more about is a lot of possible stories you could find yourself in, and it might be fun to let age end the game--your adventurers retiring as befits their success, such as in the game Pirates!. Really, though, at this point I'd settle for "kill the evil wizard" if my other conditions were met.

Comments

Keith Burgun
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Great post

I agree. One thing I would clarify is the definition of grinding. Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup's "philosophy" section says it well: "Low risk, time consuming actions with good rewards are to be avoided in game design because they are boring to the player. " Your game design should not be encouraging the player to do boring shit.

I would also add to your thing: good writing. Like, *really* good writing, not just "good for a video game" good. Planescape: Torment comes to mind as a possible example.

Bill Loguidice
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Joined: 12/31/1969
Nice!

#2 and #1 are the most important to me, in that order.

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Alan V (not verified)
Sounds good :)

You've done quite well there, Matt. I have to say I miss a lot of that stuff too. So much so with the packaging that I've gone back and bought a whack of the oldies (as you know) ;)

I also HATE grinding. It is good, if you explore new places. But it shouldn't be a 'linear grind' - like Diablo was - where you HAVE to fight the same old over and over. If I explore the world and choose to enter dungeons by myself, and fight similar monsters, that's okay ;)

I wish they'd develop a proper procedurally-generated CRPGs. There are few of these, but most are either skin-deep, and the other is Dwarf Fortress (which is insanely-complex). It would be neat to have a game that develops the basic world for you, and offers you a new experience when you replay. Granted, that has its own limitations, but it would be a wonderful experience.

The CRPG I'm most looking forward to is Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. I loved Oblivion and it got 100+ hours out of me. While it does have a main narrative, you can run around and do whatever you want. I engaged the main narrative much later on, and had a blast just exploring the world. I'm sure Skyrim will be the same. Plus, it looks stunning!

And what WAS the last game to allow you to create a group? I can't even think of anything beyond gold-box :)

Al.

clok1966
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Joined: 01/21/2009
This is going to sound bad

This is going to sound bad fromt he start, not ment too, no really :) Matt, what do you consider the last really great RPG? YOu mention the Gold Box games alot (awsome games). As you mention them it -seems- they would be the best to you.. long drought :( For me the LAST "GREAT" RPG might have been DAGGERFALL, it was the last one to introduce something i really wanted, open world, do as I please, create my spells, screw the story, i can make the world my own. I know its been done better since (oblivion for one, but the world is not random, or as large). Personally i would say the dungeon Master/EOB/Black Crypt/Lands of lore RPG's where my most loved in a general sence.

I love turn based, but even the GOLD BOX had the dreaded... fight 50 of these over, didnt i do that before? i can beat um with my eyes closed, but this is going to take 2 hours to wade through... and thats its weak point to me, the battle system is "grinding" in many spots. it would be realy hard to make a game long enough without some grinding to level. Untill somebody comes up with a better system i do think Real time with the space bar pause is the best...(not the best ever, just best current sollution) if not taken to DA blink and you missed it style, i was hitting the space bar like a fire button in a shooter on that one! I 100% agree with the tactics of turn based, its skill/ and effect use of what you have that wins those fights, and they can be taliored to that alot easier thatn any RT fights.

Story, we all want somthing good, but its been years since I wanted to read what every NPC said (damn JPRPG's on consoles, having everybody say something was cool, but when 90% of said nothing that mattered and you had to wade through um all to be sure... on 50+ games, I hate it now).. again one reason the Witcher is good, while the story is nothing new, its not simply good vs evil (like almost every RPG, what else is there?) i can make choices that are not so clear cut (and i really overthink them, thats a good sign). The story... I want the dialog to mean something to me in the game, going to a town with 50 people and 48 say "nice sword, you a warrior" and 2 others say something pertaining to the story... BAD!!!!! 5 caned responces are worse than none to me.

My party, i pick who is comming- 100% agree if i do it i feel more involved, but then the game cant be tailored much, and it creates some issues (sometimes) those people who will use 2 playres instead of the 6 the game was intended for, 1/10th in they have god like pair! or even solo.. sure those poeple should be rewarded for baning out those first levels on ultra hard with just 2 instead of 6.... but lets face it, most RPG's start in wimp mode to make learning the game easy (again.. its still hard to do with less PC's.. but you can) so its not that HUGE a deal. and when you level um fast they are overpowered (ad&d thaco like) and just sorta shrug off attacks and whittle the pests away (dont it many times in ols school RPG's).

Im out of room (real life) so the better box thing i can live without or with, no biggy but do understand (background in matts chat) why :)

the World- im far more interested in exploring it then who is in it, always have been.. a world with lots of hidey hole dungeons to explore, lots (and i mean lots) of new enemy types (and not diablo style change the pallet ones)... that rush of discovery, figureing out I need water when fighting that giant cockroach the spits lightning.. thats the stuff I love.. finding that new sword, armour..

I agree with all your points Matt, just on different levels. I keep figureing I should learn Flash so i can make a sweet (most likely in my mind only) little dungeon crawler, start real basic and move up.. but as with all things, never get around to it, play to much, fly my RC planes to much, drive my Vette and Motorcycle to much.. and try to get in some tv watching and movies,and this dang work thing burns way to much time too :)

Igor Hardy
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Joined: 01/15/2009
Recommendations?

I would be interested in reading examples of the most accomplished cRPGs when it comes to wishes: #1, #3 and #4.

Also, how would anyone here evaluate Spiderweb indie RPGs? I've played some of the earliest of their productions during the early 90s and have some very fond memories of them (turn-based, characters from scratch, very interesting fantasy worlds), but they were my first cRPG experiences and I haven't played any of the new Spiderweb titles yet.

Bill Loguidice
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Near miss...
Igor Hardy wrote:

Also, how would anyone here evaluate Spiderweb indie RPGs? I've played some of the earliest of their productions during the early 90s and have some very fond memories of them (turn-based, characters from scratch, very interesting fantasy worlds), but they were my first cRPG experiences and I haven't played any of the new Spiderweb titles yet.

I tried some of their demos a few years back. I believe it was Avernum. They talk a good game, i.e., they say all the things people like me want to hear, but the actual game execution was a bit lacking in polish and appeal. I don't mind low res graphics, but I do mind ugly graphics, which these have. In any case, their games are the types of games I should love, but I honestly didn't.

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Rampant Coyote (not verified)
I'd like to recommend my

I'd like to recommend my upcoming title ( http://rampantgames.com/blog/?p=2928 ), but I think it fails in a number of areas. But I think I hit pretty close to the mark on #1, #3, and #4. We'll see about the packaging. I *AM* actually working on an honest-to-goodness meaty manual, and hint guide, but they'll be PDFs that you'd have to print off to get a physical copy.

Bill Loguidice
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Frayed Knights
Rampant Coyote wrote:

I'd like to recommend my upcoming title ( http://rampantgames.com/blog/?p=2928 ), but I think it fails in a number of areas. But I think I hit pretty close to the mark on #1, #3, and #4. We'll see about the packaging. I *AM* actually working on an honest-to-goodness meaty manual, and hint guide, but they'll be PDFs that you'd have to print off to get a physical copy.

It looks superb. The only personal "knock" is that you can't create your own characters, but I find the aesthetic appealing and the feature-set interesting. Definitely keep us apprised of the progress...

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Rampant Coyote (not verified)
Since you guys were kind

Since you guys were kind enough to let me run off at the mouth on your show, I figure I owe you a copy or two. :)

Matt Barton
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Joined: 01/16/2006
5 Things
Rampant Coyote wrote:

I'd like to recommend my upcoming title ( http://rampantgames.com/blog/?p=2928 ), but I think it fails in a number of areas. But I think I hit pretty close to the mark on #1, #3, and #4. We'll see about the packaging. I *AM* actually working on an honest-to-goodness meaty manual, and hint guide, but they'll be PDFs that you'd have to print off to get a physical copy.

I expect a signed copy with a cloth map and metal coyote. :)

Igor Hardy wrote:

I would be interested in reading examples of the most accomplished cRPGs when it comes to wishes: #1, #3 and #4.

Also, how would anyone here evaluate Spiderweb indie RPGs? I've played some of the earliest of their productions during the early 90s and have some very fond memories of them (turn-based, characters from scratch, very interesting fantasy worlds), but they were my first cRPG experiences and I haven't played any of the new Spiderweb titles yet.

Man, I keep hearing about those Spiderweb games but never played them. I really must check those out.

As far as examples go, and to answer Clok's question, I've played several recent CRPGs that I thought were lots of fun, just not as fun as they could have been. Neverwinter Nights and TOEE could have and should have been great, but were only mediocre. I enjoyed KOTOR. I liked DA:O at first but not so much once the novelty wore off. I got bored with Drakensang and Dungeon Siege 2 and quit before finishing them. Morrowind/Oblivion bored me, but I completed them. The new Fallout game was also pretty boring.

Going further back, I thought Might & Magic VI was fun (really enjoyed the gameworld they put together for that one). Of course, Planescape: Torment, Baldur's Gate II, Fallout, etc. are excellent. Icewind Dale had the right idea with the party, but I just didn't enjoy the campaign or setting much. Good, but not what I'd consider great. Oh, another one I liked a lot was Freedom Force. Nice departure there from the usual fantasy setting. That was 2002, so I guess that's the most recent one I enjoyed. I actually liked Betrayal in Antara (1997), the off-licensed sequel to Betrayal in Krondor. Nobody seems to remember it, but I enjoyed it.

Keep in mind I don't even think Pool of Radiance or Baldur's Gate were perfect. POR does have grinding and the battles can get dull, and of course the interface would need an overhaul today. Baldur's Gate doesn't let you have a party and the combat is real-time with pause (ugh). Unfortunately, Bioware just doesn't seem to want to do turn-based and seems to prefer style over substance when it comes to tactics. They do tend to have stories and interesting places to explore, though.

I don't care for the Diablo-clones "action-RPGs" much, and that seems to be about all anybody can make anymore except Bethesda, and they've been doing the same game since Arena.

I've heard other CRPG fans say that Wizardry 8 (2001) was the last good CRPG ever made. I've sadly not played it yet, but from what I've heard that is probably true.

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