Friday, January 27, 2012

RPG Elements On Non-RPG Games

I recently got a smartphone so I can listen to podcasts on the go. One of the podcasts I listened to mentioned this:
"Developers shouldn't shoehorn RPG elements into games that don't need them."
I think this is terribly narrow-minded. But let's hear more of his argument:
"Enslaved has a level-up system to allow your character to improve, but I believe the player has the risk to forget this as he has to remember to go to a level-up menu that's not focused on during a normal play session." 
"All of Monkey's upgrades complement each other. There's very little reason not to want them all, so why should the player have to choose those upgrades themselves? Why not have them given automatically at a set point, or have his skills improve the more they are used?" 
"In contrast, Zelda, has you exploring and one of the items you will eventually find is parts for a big heart upgrade. Once you collect enough, your max health improves. In this way, 'leveling up' is more convenient as you will inevitably find big heart containers in the course of the game."
(To be fair, Enslaved actually gives a message notification when the player has enough red orbs to be able to purchase an upgrade.)

Ok, saying "RPG elements" is pretty broad, but now we're getting somewhere. I think his main gripe is games that added leveling-up as a cheap way to add depth.

Leveling-up is having your character improve over time. Having him start out weak and through the course of the game, give him gradual improvements to allow him to face the proportionately increasing difficulty and complexity of the game.

Now, at its basic description that I've mentioned, that makes sense. You wouldn't want the player character to start out with high-level abilities, or rather, too many abilities, from the get-go, that would have overwhelmed the player with too many things he need to get hang of immediately (i.e. Bayonetta).

In traditional RPG games, those level-up improvements are largely formulaic. Allocating more points in strength simply adjusts the result of the formula for damage.

Now this becomes a question of "Why should developers be adding formulaic RPG elements to twitch games?".

More after the jump.

Why indeed? Remember Hellgate London? A part-rpg part-shooter where the deciding factor whether your gun hit an enemy is by your character's stats and dice rolls, even though you've clearly aimed your crosshair cleanly at the enemy? And oh gee, I wonder how Hellgate London was received by gamers?

Shooters are established as games of reflexes and hand-eye coordination. Should we challenge that notion? What would be the point of creating a first-person shooter that doesn't rely on the player's reflexes?

But enough of that. Surely we can adapt the concept of leveling-up to games that don't require dice rolls.

Character Improvement

Let's take leveling-up again at its basic concept: character improvement.

Mario improves over time. As he gains the Tanuki suit or the cape, he gets new abilities. Link gets the boomerang, the bombs, and they change how Link can dispatch enemies. Soma Cruz gets new powers by absorbing the souls of his enemies. Racing games allow you to buy better cars or better car parts. First-person shooters let you obtain more powerful weapons over time.

These new improvements drastically change the flow of the game (at least, a good game should).

The difference with these against leveling-up is that experimenting with these improvements I mentioned is so easy. You get Mario's Tanuki suit or Link's boomerang as obtained items, with no cost (except for the hardships entailed), ready to be tested, as opposed to getting them by having to spend hard-earned skill points to purchase skills from a dull list, where new players will find it hard to visualize the worth of each skill. Which skill should he purchase? You really can't expect a newcomer to be able to choose confidently.

Fluff-filled descriptions for each skill doesn't help in making an informed decision. It would take a wiki where each player contributes their insight into the skills' appropriate use to help a player choose ("Skill X is really nice, but oh, its really only useful when you fight enemy A, otherwise forget about it. And when you fight an enemy using skill X, you can counter it using skill Y or skill Z depending on your class..."). And that will be a lot of reading. For a new player who just wants to play the damn game, that can be exasperating.

And if you needed to purchase improvements in non-RPGs, as with the racing game example, the racing game has leeway for mistakes: you can sell off car parts the moment you don't need them anymore, but skills you've purchased for your RPG character stay there indefinitely and if it turns out you didn't want that, then too bad. You'd have to reload.

This is why respec is such a heated debate in gamer communities. And I'm sure developers are pondering hard on the subject as well.

So then it becomes natural for RPG gamers to go through trial-and-error experiments called min-maxing. RPG games accommodate for players who have the mindset of "Oh I'll grind for hours and max out the strength and see how effective my character becomes, if it sucks then I'll just discard this character/load my game". This won't necessarily work for non-RPGs.

So the problem is that the RPG's level-up way of giving character improvement is normally a permanently life-changing process for the character, and as such, it should be decided on only after lengthy deliberation, and only after having gained a good grasp on the game's system. And that, may or may not be appropriate for a non-RPG game, where that kind of player mindset is not prevalent.

Accommodating Play Styles

Leveling-up also consists of letting the player choose how he wants the character to improve. He may opt for stealth skills, attack skills, et al. Basically, allowing the player to play using different play styles. This is at the heart of Western RPGs where the game should allow you to roleplay however you want.

I believe the characteristic of accommodating different play styles is already adapted in non-RPG games long before the "let's put RPG elements everywhere" idea came in. Even though the multiple play styles in non-RPGs is not quite as varied.

In Gradius, you can choose to be faster, have missiles, have a little guy who shoots with you, or have a shield, etc. You can customize cars in some racing games. Real-time strategy games have you purchasing various upgrades and can be played with different strategies in mind.

The golden grail here is to be able to establish emergent behaviour while using only the least amount of desired building blocks.

Compulsory Variation

Take note that accommodating play styles is different from having a game that variates its requirements for winning. Each boss battle in Zelda games require your use of a new weapon's unique ability. It makes for good variation, but it doesn't necessarily accommodate different play styles ("I want to be stealthy but this game isn't letting me!").

That isn't to say its mutually exclusive. You could surely accommodate to different play styles and still have variating requirements for winning.


So I believe allowing the player to unlock and experiment with better versions of the things he can do, and optionally allowing him different ways to achieve his goals is as good as having put RPG elements in your game, without needing to shove a stat system to it.

Remember: new players aren't as well-informed as to know which skills he should be purchasing, or which stats he should devote to, so helping the player get rid of his lack of knowledge is the goal.

So how about these as few suggestions to get your brainstorms started:
  1. Tutor: A game where the player is gently introduced to the usefulness of each skill he gets, by "tutorial missions" in the vein of Starcraft 1. Each mission requires his use of that skill to succeed.

    Afterwards, the next non-tutorial missions given can be finished using any of the skills he previously used. He'll have more confidence in choosing which skill to level-up now, since he has past experience with using them.

    You could make this more complex by showing him only the missions that he seems to gravitate to (he likes stealth? give him more stealth-skill tutorial missions!).

  2. Refund: An option to re-lock an unlocked upgrade, where you get back perhaps half of the points spent on that upgrade. Optionally, the option to refund is only allowed for a limited time after purchasing it.

  3. Try-before-you-buy: Allow the player to try out a skill/weapon first in mock combat before he finally commits to purchasing it. Champions Online and Bayonetta does this.

  4. Unlock full version: Upon purchasing a skill, you can sell it back for the full price, but it currently works in a limited manner of some sort (only at half efficiency, or can only use it a limited number of times, etc.).

    An option that is labeled as "commit to this skill" gives you the skill with no limitations, but you can't sell it anymore.