Gaming on a Timer

Ideas – Four RPG Tropes, How to Improve Them, Part 1

Disclaimer: The following article is merely a gathering of ideas, thoughts that I have collected throughout my gaming experiences regarding certain tropes found most commonly in the RPG genre. They should not be taken as fact, but instead as a provocation for thought for the improvement of the medium.

Throughout the history and evolution of electronic entertainment, role playing games have been one of the most prolific genres by far, from the text-only Multi-User Dungeons (M.U.D.s) – one of the early forms of massively multiplayer gaming – to recent graphical powerhouses such as the Witcher 2 and the upcoming Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.

As a result, the genre has always been in the forefront of trend-setting, with many modern tropes and clichés stemming from 20+ year old sources. While these tropes are often ignored (or, in rare cases, done well enough to be welcome additions to the overall experience), for the most part the possibility of improvement exists. Some ideas on the subject:

Convoluted Character Development


Final Fantasy VII status screen,
part 1 of 3.

What’s Wrong: Using more than a handful of derivative statistics, often with poorly defined function, which in turn reduce much of the actual gameplay to number crunching. The Final Fantasy franchise has been particularly guilty of this (barring the latest instalments, which I’ve sadly not played yet) – as an example, Final Fantasy VII boasts a total of thirteen main and derived statistics (such as Strength and it’s derivatives, Attack and Attack%), another nine elemental effects in each of the four ways they react with each character, plus a huge list of attack and defend effects as they are dictated by equipment. Additionally, the player is asked to manage said statistics for each of the eight characters that gradually become available during play.

What’s Right: This type of system is, however, highly beneficial to players that wish to engage in “min/maxing”, the process in which they develop the characters to be as powerful as possible (usually via focus on specific statistics per character and in-game “grinding” techniques that allow them to maximize their gains – these are unique to each game and usually very time-consuming).

An age-old habit for the genre,
by the looks of it.

What to Improve: The principles of emergent gameplay can be used here, specifically the usage of minimal elements, but with well-defined interactions between them. In the Final Fantasy example, the reduction to three individual attributes (e.g. Strength, Magic, Defense), which don’t overlap each other in functionality can provide a simple, yet complex system of character development. Said attributes can then be combined to form highly specialized secondary statistics (which the player cannot influence directly, past increasing their “parent” attribute; in this example, Strength and Defense are both factored for Evading attacks) – this in effect provides an easy to understand, yet hard to perfect system of interactions, allowing for a high degree of specialization, allowing the game to shift focus to actual gameplay instead of number crunching.

Overuse of Dialogue


Intro scene from The Witcher.
Not pictured: A heap of exposition…

What’s Wrong: During development (specifically writing), one of the most common problems that arise is the need to convey a large amount of information to the player in order for them to better experience the game’s world and atmosphere; the result in most cases is huge text dumps and in-universe dialogues in what I like to call “exposition overload” – the writers’ attempt to bring the player up to speed with what their in-game persona is “supposed to know”. Often this leads to severe pacing problems, which in turn result in the player losing interest in the game. A good example of this is The Witcher: Tasked with conveying the entire collection of short stories and books that preceded it, the game resulted in huge exposition dialogues in the game’s first chapters; while the game is otherwise great, I find it easy to believe that more than a few of the early buyers were put off by this and never gave it a chance.

…which the game will gleefully
use on each and every occasion.

What’s Right: Dialogue can be a powerful tool, if used in moderation; some games, while featuring significant amounts of written and/or spoken dialogue, have mitigated the problem by carefully rationing it and even used it for added effect, by contrasting brief moments of dialogue against larger action sequences; this is best seen in the Half Life series (not RPG’s but they illustrate the point quite nicely), where the dialogue set pieces are set as a 5-10 minute break in between the (much longer) action sequences.

Meanwhile, Half Life manged it right.

What to Improve: Games are an interactive medium and this allows the creators of the experience (a.k.a. the game) to improvise in ways that other media can’t – the player can explore the environments in a much more detailed way if they are so inclined (and sufficient leeway has been provided for them). Instead of, say, having a dialogue line reading “This kingdom is rich beyond belief.”, design the kingdom levels with that in mind; gold trimmings on any tool available, gem-encrusted public works and well-dressed citizens can clue in the player instantly, while also allowing them to explore and pace their experience to their own tastes.

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Part 2 Link
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Further Reading
===========
* Emergent Gameplay (Wikipedia Link)
* Dialogue Conventions (FFVII Case Study)
* FFVII Status Screens (FFVII Wiki)
* The Witcher Official Site
* Multi-User Dungeons (Wikipedia Link)

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