design lamentation & thinkingoutloud

you want to make a CRPG because you love them. and, really, it’s great fun. but there are numerous design problems to be solved. some are less than obvious. what follows are notions that have occured to me recently, working on Deus Ex, our dark SF conspiracy CRPG.

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rpg skill systems

a) you want enough skills to make character differentiation cool

b) you want each skill to be strong enough on its own

(these two, a & b, are somewhat at odds–without enough skills, the player feels too constrained and does not feel like he can customize his character enough. however, the more skills you try to express within the game, the harder it is to make each skill worth the player’s attention/selection.)

c) you have to populate the map with uses of these skills

(believe it or not, this is somewhat hard to do–it can be difficult to come up with enough places to use the “medic” skill, for instance. each 3d map must support enough instances of all the skills you decide to include. add too few and the player who chose a specific skill gets ripped off. add too many and the game starts to feel ludicrous: “i had to heal 16 people just to walk down this one city block.”)

d) use of the skills has to matter in the game

e) you cannot invalidate one player because he lacks a certain skill

(these two, d & e, are somewhat at odds–you cannot, for instance, make a plot critical door that must be lockpicked, since some players might not have taken the lockpicking skill. obviously, if every door/area can be bypassed in multiple ways, the problem becomes easier to cope with. but it still requires thought and flexibility.)

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all these problems are solvable. (and solve them we will!) but really they stem from a larger problem–designing the game’s context first. many of us set out to make a cool computer gaming experience that is connected to the cool paper RPG experiences we know and love. this of course leads to thinking in old paper RPG terms, which leads to designing features that are difficult (but not impossible) to express in a CRPG.

i feel like i’ve had a recent realization that is meaningful to me personally (mostly because of the stylistic course i feel like i’m on as a designer). most CRPG developers know so well what their game’s context is that they develop the game by trying to make it meet that context. in other words, i know what a mage is, therefore i will design some mage-like CRPG features, like ‘charm person,’ so that playing a mage in the game will feel like it does in paper games. then you start hitting problems–what can i do with a charmed victim? certainly i cannot do as much as i could in a paper RPG. his conversations alone in a computer game will be severaly limited. plus, what happens if another mage casts charm person on my character and i lose control of him? is that fun in a CRPG?

so it now seems painfully obvious to me that this is a problematic move. perhaps instead, you should figure out a list of things the computer/engine can do well, pick the ones that work well together then wrap your context around those elements. for instance: i know that we can do player-character flight well, so levitation, free-fall and flight become a branch of magic.

the sequence–game expression first, context second–lends itself to more elegant game dynamics…things that actually work better in a CRPG.

then, of course, with the ‘smoke and mirrors’ elements, like the way the game looks and sounds, you complete the context and fill out the fantasy world (or whatever your world is).

sure, this is a simple concept, but i think i once missed it entirely, rooted in my old ways. the console people and old school programmers get this i think better than “designers.”

anyway, my hope is that being armed with this knowledge we can make everything work in our game, making all the cool CRPG elements of Deus Ex as much fun to play with as possible.

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