July 26, 2005

Notes on Designing the Perfect RPG

by peterb

Random notes, from about 4 years ago, on peterb's theory of computer role playing games and why designing fun CRPGs is so hard.

"I don't consider anything the Japanese do to be RPGs. Those are movies with extra special boring parts put in the middle for obsessive-compulsives."

Why do most RPGs suck?

There are basically 3(*) elements that go into making a computer RPG.

1) Plot.

2) Conversations with non-player characters.

3) Combat mechanics.

4) General interactivity with the world.

(*) I said 3 because it sounds better.

I've ordered those elements from most to least important. Designing games where each of these elements is fun requires entirely different skill sets.


Plot, surprisingly, might be the easiest element to get right. A decent writer can create an interesting plot that isn't silly. There is a simple test you can apply to determine if the plot sucks:

If a chick in a chainmail bra appears in any of the box cover art or the magazine ads for the game, the plot will suck. I call this the "EverTest"

The only RPG with a truly superb plot in recent years would, in my estimation, be Planescape: Torment. And even that was probably incomprehensible to anyone who didn't grow up steeped in the minutiae of Dungeons and Dragons. The game suffered from its milieu, rather than flourishing from it.


Conversations with non-player characters are tough, also, because you run the risk of confusing the player if you have lots of unrelated stuff. But the benefit of having lots of unrelated stuff is that you can create a more immersive world.

The best game of its type for conversation was Ultima III.

The worst games for conversation (of games that have any at all) are any of the Japanese games. The particular way in which they're horrible is they have a tendency to design where NPCs either say nothing useful at all or tell you something that directly advances the plot. There seems to be no middle ground.


Combat mechanics are the easiest element to screw up. This is where the Japanese RPGs both excel and fail, in different ways.

Designers are caught in a conundrum: if the combat mechanics are too simple, the player will not find the game interesting because it will seem too simplistic. But if they are too complex, then the game has the potential to be oh my God I want to die of boredom level boring. (This doesn't apply for "pure" combat games such as Final Fantasy Tactics. Presumably, anyone who buys a game whose entire raison d'etre is tactical combat knows what they are getting themselves into.)

The formula for determining boredom can be expressed as followed:

time required to resolve combat * number of non-plot-advancing combats = boredom

Probably my favorite way of preventing this formula from increasing the Boredom Quotient is to at a certain point just accept that the player is going to win stupid little combats and resolve them automagically. (To make up for how much bashing I'm doing of Japanese RPGs here, I'll point out that Earthbound for the SNES did this. Some day I'll write an article about Earthbound and how it transcended the boundaries of its medium by being self-aware in an almost postmodern way. But not today.) Of course, as a designer you should be asking yourself: if the combat is meaningless or the outcome predetermined, why bother subject the player to it at all? If the answer is simply "to increase R", then you have a fundamental design flaw. One idea I like is the thought that perhaps the enemies will recognize that the player is driving a Sherman tank and that their javelins won't hurt him much, so maybe they should run away.


A good game lets you do things that have nothing to do with the plot, and has some sort of log or reminder system to allow you to get back on track if you forget what you should be doing. Baldur's Gate (like all of the Bioware games) is pretty good in this regard. Examples of "bad" include most of the Zelda games(*) (which have "side quests" but no feeling of a world that exists independently of the player), Final Fantasy whatever, and Wizardry for the Apple ][.

(*): These notes were originally written years before Wind Waker, which did a slightly better job, narratively, of making the player feel that they were a part of a world, rather than the world's reason for being.

Some designers have chosen to interpret "interactive" to mean that the player should be able to break or steal anything. This is indeed one definition, but it's an unadventurous one. Like "realism" and "immersion", other loaded terms, interactivity is something that you only want part of the time. You want the exciting, fun things you'd like to do to be interactive. You want the boring, stupid parts of the world to not be interactive. As much as I personally dislike the Grand Theft Auto series of games, they seem to have a sense about this: you'll never have to stop to pay a toll to use a highway, or put gas in your Ferrari.

Any game that makes you replay a substantial portion of it when you die sucks and the designers are going to hell. Canonical example: all of the Zelda games.


The question of what a CRPG is is itself hotly debated. In the years since Wizardry first codified the D&D-style level-up progression form of play, little new ground has been broken. Most CRPGs are, for the most part, still about wandering around monster infested areas and hitting "fight fight fight parry parry parry" once a round. The future of the CRPG as a genre depends on those pushing past the "show the user a spreadsheet full of numbers that slowly gets bigger over time" model of interaction. The best possible case is probably the disappearance of the genre as a separate recognized class (except among retrogaming fans), and for its best attributes to simply be absorbed by mainstream games, leaving the drudgery, such as inventory management, behind.

Posted by peterb at July 26, 2005 06:10 PM | Bookmark This

Game plots != traditional plots, since very often they have to be branching and have to live within the constraints of the medium. They can't be "reread" very easily (although logs help), and they often rely on the actions of the player to reveal key elements.

The best RPG plot of recent memory is KOTOR. Hands down. Because of its "twist" and how it became a story of redemption or a story of revenge based entirely on the player's choice without forcing the designers to write two different story arcs. Genius.

Related to plot are characters, and memorable characters make a huge difference. Again, BioWare has traditionally made the most memorable characters (HK47, Minsc, etc.).

Conversation sucks in games, period. The Looking Glass guys realized this and dodged the whole issue consciously by removing conversation trees from their games. The problem is that there's no real choice, so the player engages in a depth first tree search until all paths are exhausted. Yay, that was fun.

In Japanese games it's even worse, because they A.) prompt you to continue and B.) ask you questions that have no outcome on the rest of the tree and C.) are purely linear. Basically it's a linear narrative and the player is just there to unpause the text.

For combat the key element isn't time, it's interest. For combat to be fun it has to be interesting. The problem with a lot of RPGs is that the random encounters are tedious, not fun or interesting, since they're somewhat preordained. If every encounter was avoidable and also challenging then it becomes a lot more fun. At one extreme it's FFT and at the other extreme it's, um, some game without a lot of mindless combat and is boring as a result which I can't think of right now.

Combat (in fact, ALL mechanics) should be structured so that you're learning complex acts slowly over time, such that the final encounter should require the combined use of all the techniques learned through the course of the game.

Posted by Brian Hook at July 27, 2005 08:58 AM

The problem with CRPGs is that there are exactly two plots:

Acquire something
Assassinate someone

The "acquire something" plot covers treasure hunts, kidnappings, robberies, recovering stolen goods, the quest to find the long lost Frob of Doom and save the kingdom, etc. "Assassinate someone" covers anything where the ultimate goal is to kill someone or destroy something, which covers all the plots that end with the death of the Big Evil Boss.

The CRPG medium is currently so limited that after you've played enough games, all the plots run together. Oh boy, in Final Zorkstasy MCLXXVI, my band of plucky adventurers have to kill the evil wizard/king/monster/demon Bortboz who is trying to take over/destroy the world! But first, we have to get experience by defeating his minions in the Fens of Mordior! Then we have to find the long lost Frob of Frobs, which is the only thing that can defeat Bortboz! Then we have to infiltrate his lair, evade his traps, defeat his guards, and finally kill him in the Big Final Battle! Never done that before!

Sure, a lot the plotlines from pencil and paper RPGs follow the same pattern, but the fun in a pencil and paper game usually comes from the social interaction between players and the twists and turns in the plot even the GM didn't anticipate. A bad GM will railroad his or her players into the predestined plot, while a good GM will allow the plot to adapt to the player's choices. A CRPG has no choice but to railroad the player along the plot paths allowed by the game designer. For this reason, CRPGs have more in common with "interactive novels" than they have with their source material, even if they adapt the rules and game world from a pencil and paper RPG.

I believe that the first few (good) CRPGs anyone plays are fondly remembered because of the novelty. But the more games one plays, the more the plots all run together and it takes a novel environment (like Jade Empire), nostalgia (like KOTOR) or truly interesting characters and plot. But even good CRPGs do not have good replay value, because there's only so many ways you can interact with that "interesting" NPC and so many times you can be intruiged by the Big Plot Twist. Furthermore, the more games one plays, the harder it is to come up with novel environments, characters and plots. So in the end, there are so many bad CRPGs because it's so easy to make a bad CRPG simply by copying the elements of a "good" one.

Posted by Elvis Flathead at July 27, 2005 10:34 AM

I thought those two plots describe basically what happens in any modern game that claims to have narrative.

Posted by psu at July 27, 2005 11:03 AM


Your complaints about CRPGs can pretty much be used to sum up most issues with, say, fantasy novels. I mean, hell, you could generalize more and just say "The problem is that every story is about some protagonists that must overcome some set of obstacles in order to achieve their goals". =)

I also disagree that there was really that much freedom in pnp RPGs. If your DM has just spent two weeks lovingly hand crafting an adventure to take place in the Mountains of Zorflor and the PCs first action is "We jump on a ship to the Deserts of Tybizia!", well, one of two things happen:

1. A sudden storm comes up that destroys all ships and the PCs are forced to go through the Mountains of Zorflor.

2. The DM creates an ad hoc adventure on the fly that will, invariably, suck more than most DM adventures already do.

Posted by Brian Hook at July 27, 2005 11:06 AM

I have no point here, I just like saying "Bortboz."

Posted by peterb at July 27, 2005 12:28 PM

I think one great thing worth mentioning is that, if you dazzle and confuse a user with options upon options of style and image configurations, they will eventually not be able to see or care how these configurations don't affect anything.

Consider: WWE Smackdown: Bring The Pain. It's a pro wrestling game, which I guess means it's somewhere between a fighter and a sports game. The character creation system allows a shocking amount of flexibility with respect to creating a character's build, clothing (both in and out of the ring), entrance, music, pyrotechnics, and wrestling moves, that even someone like me (who has participated in game design and who doesn't care a pile for pro wrestling anyway) forgets that, fundamentally, none of this changes the inevitable, linear progression of the character's wrestling career.

But pro wrestling is a world of style over substance, and we all harbor fantasies of glamor and badassery. Giving users the ability to make any likeness they desire and empower it with a customized buttkicking style makes the creation and management of style far more fun than anything else.

Outside of that, the game sucks. I've still had many a fun evening with friends making wrestler avatars of each other and giggling when we strut into the ring.

Posted by cuplan at July 27, 2005 04:21 PM

The only RPG I still enjoy playing is Fallout 2 (and Fallout, even if I can't get it to run on my computer). Plot may be campy at times, but it is very involving.

Anyone else like it?

Posted by Geo at August 2, 2005 11:16 AM

RPGs are repetitive. I've always assumed this is a matter of processing power. If developers put more of the increased disk size and processor power into individualizing battles, and less into flashier graphics, (ugh) cinematic cut scenes, and worst of all slow-down-the-loading-times voice audio, there would be less repetition.

The best RPGs, with rare exceptions, are those with the best battle systems. I loved the Grandia games, because I could get into a rhythm where I could make decisions intuitively. The battle systems were so well-designed you could get a feel for them, like driving a car. An exception would be KOTOR, a game with (IMO) a somewhat clunky battle system; but the story and the graphics were so good, and the dialogue was so well written, you hardly noticed.

Being a bit of a Japanophile, I'm more forgiving of Japanese games. I like the cultural distance I can never really tell whether dialogue is bad, or there's some cultural reference I'm not getting. Often, there are lines which I assume are supposed to be funny but for me are just mysterious. I like the mystery. With North American games, I know when the writing is bad which it usually is. And Japanese games don't feature the ridiculously inflated, tiresome, tiresome, tiresome boobs that American games are afflicted with (Bioware is particularly guilty on this one).

Anyway, RPGs could be less repetitive if more production work was put into essentials (the battles, the writing) and less into frills (cut scenes. cut scenes. cut scenes. If I wanted to watch anime, I'd rent a DVD. I want to play, not watch!)

Posted by hector at August 8, 2005 03:06 AM

Please excuse me if I repeat anything anyone else said or says. Why dont people ever trie to go for a game that relies less on interactive comps and try to get the people that play the game to interact(oviously this would be massive oline). Also have a plot yes but make the rest of the world so intresting that you may never play it and yet still enjoy the game. By this I mean make it have a hidden plot that can be found, but only to the few great players. The plot losses a lot of its luster if everyone finshed it. Also find ways to give individual purposes out to the characters to make them fell different than the other 200 level 27 wizards. The greatness of the game is mainly based a pone the individual experience and now a days the graphics. Also game creators should also find ways to be more involved in the game when it is finish. For example being this extremly powerful avatar that hold an item that will make the one that defeats him a new unique avatar. But the creator can choose in the end weather or not they are worthy even if the creator doese loss.

Posted by abyss prophet at October 9, 2005 01:01 AM


Amusingly, I just told Chris at "Only a Game" blog that using the argument "this makes the game easier to design" was bogus (in the case of savepoints) if it improved the game, but I'm going to use that argument here: the reason most games don't put in a lot of content that is hard to find or not relevant is that there's an issue of diminishing returns. Creating content is a lot of hard work, and if most (or a substantial portion) of the players are never going to see a given side quest, haven't you just wasted a lot of precious development time and effort?

That being said, I think the The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind comes very close to what you're describing.

Posted by peterb at October 9, 2005 07:52 AM

The fact that peterb likes Planescape's plot is telling, though I'd counter that knowing the minutae of D&D is actually /detrimental/ to the player in that game. Since most CRPGs are oriented towards fighting, it behooves the player to design their character with that in mind--which blows your ability to easily complete Planescape, since non-fighting attributes (charisma, wisdom, intelligence) are more important.

I would also mention the only console RPG I've finished (OMG the boredom factor of loading battles on consoles...)--Summoner for the PS2. While there was a lot of stock in trade fighting, there were some twists that made it engaging enough to work through that boredom factor. Plot twists (wow, this game is short, *aaaaaargh* no it's not) and odd things like completing part of the game with only certain members of the party. (It is available for the PC, too.)

The only other console RPGs that engaged me enough to keep me involved for more than a few hours were Wild Arms (though ultimately the ocean going portion killed it for me) and Legends of Dragoon (again, an unexpected plot twist).

I disagree entirely with the person claiming that face to face RPGs are also either "rail road the players" or "pull garbage out of your butt". A good GM (yes, they are rare), knows that plot development can't be rigid. As a GM what I try to do, and as a player what I look for in a GM/game, are elements that a) aren't so wrapped up in mechanics that they over-shadow the game and players, and b) more of a plot *concept* than a *plotting*. The latter suggests prescription. The former is an idea, a frame that the game can hang on--as the players act as their characters.

Sure, it's a lot tougher than point A->point B, but it's a great deal more memorable for everyone. It means that the GM has to be light on their feet, and willing to throw their own stuff in the trash in favor of working out new developments between games. But as with most things--you have to invest to reap rewards.

As a player, this is why I prefer a point-based character generation where I can flesh out my character concept in a more collaborative fashion with the GM--it gives the GM things to stick into that framework for the rest of the game.

Posted by N. at October 9, 2005 03:00 PM

Back to Geo(even though it was last year):
Yes Fallout 2 is the greatest game ever designed. With its intricate plot design and so many side quest that it just makes the game more fun to play. On top of this the progression is linear, but not to the point that their is only one way to accomplish your goal (find the geck!). And their is no hinderence if you are good or evil. The creator's are very culture individuals indeed, giving you the feeling of that "real world" experience while exposing you to entertaining classic anecdotes(Answer me this, what is your favorite color?). Anyways games seem to be going the same way as all entertainment these days,especially movies. They keep building a better way to watch the boom boom, but the play is so boring and tedious that I may as well just be doing homework. At least then I learn something. To the end of all video games...here here?

Posted by Kazamarth at February 6, 2006 01:19 PM

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