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Article - '10 Tips for RPG Building' by Guest

An item about Game Design posted on Aug 26, 2004

Blurb

10 big, sectioned off tips to help you get the most out of your RPG.

Body

Hello all game-builders, I know you don’t wanna read an intro so here I go:

The technical aspects of this article apply to RM2K, but mostly the design concepts apply everywhere.

1) Consistency is everything!

A basic and essential principal to game design is consistency. Graphics, Music, Dialogue, Style etc. it applies to everything. If you're graphics style doesn’t match (i.e. the tonality and texture of grass doesn’t match in the forest with that of a town) then there's a visual problem the player will pick up on. If your window frames in a CMS differ majorly that that of your system format, then there's a problem. If a characters dialogue doesn’t stay consistent (unless there’s a plot related aspect that allows it to change) there's a problem. Every great game out always maintains a good style/theme consistency. But where to draw the line? Keep it within design, when it comes to core gameplay as long as it's fun, who gives a care?

2) Don't be afraid to be (a little) cliché

What I mean by this is I know you may hear don't use swords use sabres! Don’t use potions use food! Basically trying to stay away from FF clones right? but, sometimes a player will (particularly one playing RM2K made games) rely on old traditions to help them through game, if you throw 20 new concepts and options (will discuss later) at them you get what is I call an "overload" factor going(again will discuss later). One example being they'll open three chests and get stuff like "a ham hock", "an eagle feather", and "a red candle". Unless they are given good descriptions or at least a hint to their use quickly they may get confused. As well they may not want to check their inventory everytime they get a new item (especially if you put a lot of "chests" in your games). You can solve this using custom glyphs, references to well-known games or slight modifications of original names. Then again is there really anything wrong with "Potion-restores 50 HP"? As soon as people get it, they know what it is, and move on playing more entertaining parts of the game instead of organizing their inventory.

3) Be original

I'm aware of the slight contradiction but who said game making was simple? By which I mean, don't put in the same concepts as every other game out there. Avoid "Ultima" as the "Best" spell, Fire 1, 2, 3 nuff' said, you have a lot of flexibility with the English language so use it! Who said it has to be a real word? If your trying to make an original name for a fire-type spell just take a neat sounding word and adjust it a bit so it's catchy and original. Example:

Fire -> Inferno -> Infernis

It still sounds fire-like right? A good tip is whenever you’re faced with something that sounds typical. Never hesitate to reconsider it, "should I throw something new in the mix? Or should I refer to step 2?" Again that’s all part of good game making, knowing when to draw the line.

4) The Great "Chest" Quest

This is one thing I always found neat with RPGs, whenever you came upon a "chest" there was always that great "What could be inside?" feeling you got, the excitement, the anticipation, the great let-down when you found out it was a lousy potion, again look back to #2, do you want them to feel excited when they open it?, when they read the description in the Menu, or when they use it in battle only to find that "Spiritual potion of life" restores 50 HP and 20 MP. Back on topic there was always a really cool feeling when you found something really neat and useful like a new spell or a piece of equipment that was a good step up from what you had. So again this is a department where you the player must make a choice:

Many "chests": Lots of excitement but the let-downs of bad, useless, common items can be frustrating and annoying, again look back at #2

Few "chests": Depending on what you put in them (should be good items) your going to either get a lot of excitement from the player, or just disappointment. As well, a good strong "chest" technique is to put only certain items in "chests" like useful equipment and leave the crappy items to monster drops.

Unique "chests": If you've played Lufia 2 or FFMQ you'll know what I mean. There were two kinds of chests in each one, one with a good item and one that typically held semi-useful items like potions. There was always great anticipation when walking up to a rare chest because you "knew" you were going to get something good.
As well FFVII had a similar system while walking you would know what you could spare missing and what you couldn't, if you saw a potion lying on the top of a peak on Mt. Nibelheim. You knew you could keep walking and come back later if you felt like it cause it wasn't essential, but if it was a materia orb you scampered up there giving any enemy that stood in your way pure hell.

Hidden "chests: This involves having a few "chests" lying around but mostly hiding the items in events that look like chips on the map. This is not a bad idea, but the player may get bored and stop looking, thereby offsetting your balance a bit. The player should know that if they decide to miss a chest the game will become slightly harder, if the game becomes hard for them all of a sudden because they missed "ragnarok" hidden in a patch of grass, well that ain't too good is it?

5) Rewarding the Players

If the players go out of their way to get something, do a sidequest, or beat a remarkably hard boss. GIVE THEM WHAT THEY DESERVE. That way they will always be hunting for sidequests, always wanting to move onto the next boss, and take their time getting an item quite a ways away, it extends the play time of you game without frustrating the player. I think we all remember the huge letdown of the skulltula quest of Legend of Zelda: OOT.
A few ideas if you're stumped:
If the party is having a hard time with a boss, give them something which may have made the boss so hard (i.e. one of his spells), but balance it so if the boss was easy for them, the spell becomes less useful
If a sidequest is long, give them a reward for completing it partway or if the completely finish it, give them something better.
If they go out of their way to pickup a treasure chest to find out it was crap, somehow get them quickly back to where the path diverges so they can keep exploring and avoid excessive combat, rather than traverse familiar terrain.

6) The Beauty of Balance

If you can balance a game properly, you can give players near infinite combat possibilities without making it lopsided. Unfortunately, this happens to be one of the hardest if not THE hardest part of any game design requirement (Battle.net forums anyone?).
One basic rule when in doubt: For every action there's an equal and opposite reaction. If you give your players spells to boost defense, give future bosses higher attack, if you make more powerful versions of the spell, increase the MP cost etc. etc. Never make one thing more powerful/better than another, unless you offset it with things like "GP" cost, MP cost, rarity etc.
One extra thing, versatility = power, if a sword can do either ice or fire damage, decrease its attack or increase it's cost.
I know this sounds routine and basic, but work on it as much as you can. Experience with balance will follow and help you ALWAYS.
It's awesome when you can give players a great power, then they realize that whoa, this isn't cheese, we need this, cause the monsters are figgin tanks!

7) Alternate Leveling

This aspect can make or break RPGs. Every great RPG has one and most poorly made RPGs are either missing one or have a bad/unbalanced one. You can also think of it as "alternate experience points"

Examples:
Chrono Trigger - Tech gaining (not to great on it's own, but combining them holy muchacho!)
FFVI - Esper magic learning (limited I agree, but the game had a lot more to offer)
Diablo II- Skill tree system
FFV - Job system/AP
FFVII - Materia system

One exception I can think of this would be FFX, but again since it was very unique and had of lot of other elements (ODs, Weapon customization etc.), plus the customization aspects of the sphere grid make it MORE than forgiven.
How many times have you wanted to play an RPG simply because of its alternate leveling system?

8) Overload factor

Okay first off this is difficult to have to RM2K (A good thing, sorta) unless you have a lot of custom systems. Basically it happens when you give the player too many custom features and customization options right at the beginning of the game, they become so overwhelmed they don't want to play. FFT came deadly close to this (cause few people want to sit through the tutorials), FFX was good with this (they took their time to introduce you to new features). As well games like Morrowind or NWN that have you decide upon a good chunk of your character development before even playing the game make it frustrating to start.
Games that have this may be referred to as "Love or hate" games because if you are able to understand it all and get absorbed into it they are awesome, if not, you throw down the controller and do something else.
If you are running the risk of having this (like in tutorial-less RTS games) simply run an interactive tutorial and make it part of the story line. As well make it skippable if the player is playing through a second time.
As for class choosing right at the beginning, give a preview of some kind, either in the form of a battle or a visual example. Either way it should be interactive, people don't play a game to read.

9) RM2K Cinematography, tips and tricks

This really more or less applies to RM2K. What I mean by the topic title, is making use of what you have to make a scene or situation believable and chock full of emotion. The key features which make RM2K cinematography:

-Music-

WILL, I repeat, WILL make or break the scene, if you can coordinate the music with the animation, it will look awesome. If plan on developing good scenes, you must develop the eye and the ear so it goes together. If your not sure where to start with a scene (especially if you want to make one not knowing what it is about) listen to a tune until you find something you know will work, you may even see it in your mind’s eye and your scene will build from there, it can be effective to build a scene around music rather than the other way around (if you can't make music, like me) the only downside is, you have to find where the scene works. Sounds unorthodox but as they say, "If it's stupid and it works it's not stupid"
If you are skilled at making music, build the scene, THEN the music.

-Use or Charsets-

This is a tricky part for most people, you have good music and dialogue but the characters are just staring at each other. A good faceset will help a lot but sometimes you really want the characters "animated" (if you catch my meaning). Make their heads move, make them pace around, make them kneel, this can help you a lot! And it IS worth the time making them, if you need help look a FFVI's Character sets and use them as a guide for adjusting your own.

-Dialogue-

Going back to #1 keep your dialogue consistent with the theme of the scene, if you need help there are TONS of tutorials on this. But, some basic tips:

Angry scenes: Short sentences, dialogue runs at a face pace, hostility
Fearful scenes: Short sentences, quick movement, hesitation in the speech
Sad/emotional scenes: Drawn out sentences, repetition, smooth dialogue
Casual: this really depends on the characters personality, if there was a time where certain non-direct traits came out (anything that wouldn't apply to the above scenes, now's the time to bring it out)

Remember dialogue’s the little opportunity you have to show conscious character development, but also remember, less is more, people don't like to read in games, so the more you can have acted out, the better.

-Colour-

The use of colour (screen tones/chipsets/even monsters) really will help reinforce the mood of the scene:

Happy: Use greens/blue really anything bright will do
Anger: Browns, Blacks, Reds
Sadness: Blues, Greys
Fear: Blacks, keep it dark!
Scenes where it's "hot" (i.e. desert): Warm tones (reds, tans, browns, yellows)
Scenes where it's "cold": cold tones (blues, greens, purples)
Scenes where it's "Humid/lush": Lush greens (shiny plant chips)
Outdoors: Bright colours
Indoors: Dull colours

It kind of gets obvious from there, just make sure whatever you do, "fits the mood"

I would put a section in for graphics but really it's pretty obvious as it is totally up to you from there

One more thing, don't forget about weather effects, however I personally recommend limiting using them, but they are there.

10) Minigames/sidequests/puzzles

If you’re making an RM2K game of reasonable length (10+ hours) you should have a few minigames to break the "battle-heal-rinse-repeat" flow. Even if you are very good and can make your dungeon crawling fun and-innovative throw one in (assuming you have time, but you DO have that luxury and it IS a luxury) it'll make your game that much better.

You should follow these guidelines for minigames:
-Make sure it's FUN, especially if they have to play at least once for story purposes, if they have to for the story, make it somewhat easy.
-REWARD THEIR EFFORTS
-It doesn’t have to still be fun 5 hours later, but it should keep them entertained long enough to grab the rewards it offers.
-Don't worry so much about balance (if any) just focus on fun
-A truly magnificent minigame should be quick to learn, ages to master
-Try to give it a reason for being, don't put a duck hunt game in a world where ducks don't exist.

As for sidequests:

-REWARD THEIR EFFORTS
-They shouldn't be essential to winning the game but they can help
-Don't hide them so they're impossible to find
-They can be of any length, in fact its good to have a few long, a few short and a few in between. It keeps it unpredictable
-Be innovative, avoid "item fetching quests" unless you throw a good twist in, or the heros get to keep the item

Always throw a few sidequests in. They extend the life of your game and give the player a choice (always good).

Puzzles:

Puzzles can be similar to minigames however I consider a puzzle to be shorter, and are mostly used as a boredom breaker in dungeon crawling. It all depends how your game flows, use them as needed, and don't make them so challenging it halts the game in its tracks. If you are going to make it challenging, make it so they can quit after so many tries (however they may miss out on a non-essential prize). Remember the idea is fun. As well theme them with your "dungeon". A cave or mine shaft wouldn't have a switch complex to open a door (unless the mine is set that way). Nor would a forest have a crate-moving puzzle unless there was a circumstance that warranted it.


I hope these tips help you to design and build better games. And if I somehow tore apart a game you were building, well there’s not much I can do about that. All in all thank you reading, peace out!