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Focusing Creativity: RPG Genres

What defines your RPG experience? This article, written out of research undertaken while in preproduction for a next generation title, helpfully delineates the essential ingredients for each type of RPG -- and what should be included, and excluded, from a title in these sub-genres.

January 24, 2013

23 Min Read

Author: by Jordane Thiboust

Designer Jordane Thiboust, who deeply investigated the RPG genre while in preproduction for a next generation title, shares his hard won insight -- mainly, that mix and match genre-bending isn't the best way to deliver a polished core experience.

The RPG genre is a complex one. I've always known this, but I never realized just how much until recently. Beyond the complexity of the mechanics, the multiple systems, and the narrative, I noticed that what makes the RPG genre complex is focusing on, and nailing, the player experience.

I really started noticing this during the pre-production of a project I was working on. A lot of feedback or suggestions would be misguided because of the misconception that whatever was brought to our my attention was "RPG stuff."

The reason behind this is that the term "RPG" is used to describe lots of games, and it is easy to overlook the fact that some of those games have a completely different goal for their player experience. That's the hardest part; narrowing down that experience, asking yourself "What will drive the player for 30-plus hours?" and sticking to it... Instead of simply adding every RPG feature that you can think of.

For that reason, I found out that it is extremely important to subdivide the RPG genre by the experience of each subgenre and focus on, and then clearly decide, which of those subgenres you are aiming for.

This will drive both your production and the player who buys your games; this will help you focus on what type of features matter and might even be mandatory, and what features have no place in your game and might even have a detrimental impact on it.

Since the term "RPG" is used so loosely, for most people, every RPG game just belongs to the same big pool. They are all simply "RPGs." This is both true and false at the same time; while they are indeed all RPGs, two RPG games can sometimes have a completely different drive for the player.

Using a food analogy, if RPG were cakes, you could indeed say that they are all cakes, but still, there is a pretty big difference in taste between a chocolate cake and a lemon cake, and that's exactly why it is important to know what kind of RPG you are making -- because, as in cooking, this will determine the list of ingredients that you must use and the ones that you probably shouldn't.

So let's start by listing the different RPG subgenres, as well as their main ingredients.

The Narrative RPG

The narrative RPG, the most common type -- games like The Witcher, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age are all part of that subtype. In that genre, the player is driven almost completely by the narration; he wants to enjoy the story, the setting, and the characters. Even for his own character, it is important that he evolves narratively (even more so than mechanically).

What that means is that most of your production effort and features should be focusing on supporting this -- especially for what is usually called the "critical path." That's your main quest, campaign, or whatever you call it, the thing that the player will focus on and will want to finish.

In a Narrative RPG, immersion is critical; everything from combat to navigation, level design, and art direction, should always keep that word in mind: Immersion.

Some of the most critical ingredients for narrative RPGs are as follows:

  • Characters should be three dimensional; you should feel like they all have a story to tell and that they are unique in some way -- even if that's simply because they talk in a weird way or have a huge scar on the face.

  • Every location should tell a story; this should be a strong focus on the level design side. Why are those monsters here? Why is it shaped like this? Why is it decorated like this? Ask yourself plenty of questions. Even if you don't always give the answer to the player, just defining those answers will help you create immersion.

  • Even itemization should help immersion -- Why does that guy drop that sword? Where does it come from?

  • Your combat mechanics and the powers displayed should feel coherent with your universe. Ideally, make use of some of the character's powers in dialog and cutscenes. Yes, your healer character can and should be able to heal a wounded NPC in a cutscene.

  • Almost everything should feel like it is evolving narratively: the main character, the sidekick characters (if any), the areas the player travels through, the secondary character, and even the "bad guys."

  • Your dialog must have multiple answers; avoid doing too much linear dialog, leave the opportunity to the player to create the personality and morality of his character. There is one exception to this, though, and that's if you create a narrative RPG based on a predefined character. The Witcher is one of those, for example; in that case, your goal is to create a portrayal of that character, to let the player become intimate with who that character is. This prevents you from having extremely contrasted choices in terms of personality or morality, as you have to stay close to the original character. But if it's done well, it's also extremely rewarding for the player.

The Witcher 2

There are a few ingredients that should be either avoided, or limited in their complexity, as they could actually dilute your main experience and lose your player's focus on the story. For example:

  • Enemies should not respawn, or only do so if it makes sense narratively. Indeed, enemies respawning just for the sake of it, serves only one goal: grinding. You want to avoid this in a good narrative RPG, since if the player starts to grind, that means he is not following your story anymore, and in turn that your narrative has failed to keep him going.

  • You don't need a crafting system, but if you really want one or can't avoid having one due to the story -- as in The Witcher -- avoid making it complex, or grinding-oriented. Dragon Age II is a good example of this; its resource nodes only need to be harvested once and that's it, thus completely avoiding the grind, and instead simply giving an incentive for exploration.

  • You don't need a very complex character evolution and itemization; you are not Diablo. Even though it is important for your player to feel that he can customize his characters and make them evolve more or less as he wishes, the system should not be too deep or complex. Remember, you want your player to feel driven by your story, not by comparing a new sword every 10 seconds or by thinking for 30 minutes about where to put that next talent point. As for itemization, it is way more important for it to make sense narratively, to have lore attached to it, than to be extremely flexible. Basically, it's better for the player to acquire Excalibur, rather than for the game to drop 20 longswords, all with slightly different stats.

Narrative and immersion are your keywords; never forget them. 

The Sandbox RPG

One of the most complex and costly subtypes, and thus pretty rare -- is the sandbox RPG, which includes games like Fallout 3 and the Elder Scrolls series. Here, the player is driven by the fact that she can do what she wants, kill what she wants, be what she wants -- and do it all when she wants.

That being said, there is a bit of paradox here; in order to obtain that freedom, and be able to create her own story, the player is willing to tolerate a lot of things that she would absolutely not tolerate in any other subgenre of RPG: immersion breaking bugs, average narrative, a simple combat system, etc.

For that reason, the focus of the production and features are clearly not on the critical path, as in a Narrative RPG, but on everything surrounding it: massive numbers of secondary quests, NPCs, places to visit, dungeons to explore, etc. And almost every single feature needs to support that freedom; some of the most important ingredients of the Sandbox RPG are:

  • Deep character creation, customization and evolution; remember, the player wants to be what she wants. If she decides she wants to be a thief-mage fighting with a two-handed axe, she should be able to do so (even if that might not be optimal). That's why good sandbox RPGs don't lock themselves in a rigid class system. At worst, the class system is simply a guideline for the player.

  • Almost everything that the player would like to do should be doable, even if it is useless or potentially detrimental to her (like picking up brooms in Skyrim, or killing a quest giver). The player wants to do whatever she wants.

  • Navigation should not feel restricted; yes, that means jumping, and no invisible walls. The player experience is freedom-based; not allowing her to jump would more or less consciously reduce that feeling massively. You will notice that almost only sandbox RPGs have a jump button -- that's the reason.

  • A vast world to explore. The strength is in the details. Your world should feel alive; it should feel like it lived before and will live after the player's arrival.

  • Non-linear progression. This should be obvious, but the player should feel free at all times to go where she wants, and never feel restricted by the story.

As for the ingredients that should be avoided, or be more limited, here they are:

  • As with the Narrative RPG, your itemization should feel "real", so avoid a random loot generator that could give "exotic" results, for example.

  • Your narration needs to find a fine line between involving the player in your world and her story, and not being too big of a focus, so that she simply follows this and loses the "freedom" experience. Skyrim did a way better job than Oblivion in this area; the developers managed this by making you feel special -- you are The Dragonborn, ensuring that you feel important to the world, and thus the world to you, without making it the only thing that matters.

  • Avoid a contrasted morality system (like Paragon/Renegade in Mass Effect). The only thing it will achieve is to make the player feel like she should follow one path over the other, and thus decrease the feeling of freedom.

Freedom is your keyword; never forget it.

The Dungeon Crawler

That subtype is one of the most easily recognizable; games like Torchlight, Dungeon Siege, Diablo, and even Dark Souls are part of it. Once upon a time they were clearly defined as "hack 'n slash," but recently they joined the ever-growing group of RPGs called "action RPGs" (this is an issue; more on this later.)

The main thing driving the player here is, by far, character progression (through statistics, new abilities, or loot). Evolving your character from level 1 to, well, a lot, finding always more powerful loot, acquiring more and more powerful powers -- to kill stronger monsters that will drop better loot, and so on.

They trace their roots in your typical old school Dungeons & Dragons game, where the plot was simply a pretext and context to kill monsters and loot their stuff. Decent graphics and immersion is expected, but above all, the main focus of the production and features should be: loot, combat, a statistics system, an evolution system, a class system, etc. Anything that can make the evolution of the character more thrilling and granular should be considered a priority.

Diablo III

Some essential ingredients to focus on:

  • Complex loot system. Your random loot generator will be generating most of your "breadcrumbs" (more on this later); it should be your top priority.

  • Customizing this loot is also important -- slots for runes, gems, enchanting, and those kinds of things are always nice to have.

  • Deep character evolution. A class system, stats system, skills, feats. That's the main reason the player is playing; don't let him down.

  • Deep and detailed lore and universe -- that's your context, not your narrative itself. Having interesting lore, remarkable characters (who doesn't know Deckard Cain or Tyrael?), and varied environments will go a long way into creating a comfortable place for your player to grind through all those monsters.

  • Your enemies must respawn, even the bosses! That's critical. Your player will want to keep farming those guys for more loot, experience points, runes, gold, or whatever. That's the whole point of the thing, and while it is detrimental to a narrative RPG, it is completely mandatory for a good dungeon crawler. Do you think Diablo would be as fun if you couldn't farm the hell (literally!) out of Diablo himself?

A few things to avoid, in my opinion:

  • Narrative is secondary, and could actually hinder your main experience if it's too present. Typically, you should avoid complex dialog systems with multiple choices; while they are a must in a narrative RPG, they are just a loss of time for most players playing a Dungeon Crawler; they want to kill, bash, loot, level up -- not make complex morality choices or define their character's personality. They are also not looking to be emotionally engaged by the story.

  • Avoid open worlds; for some reason, that's something that a lot of hack 'n slash games tried, and it never worked very well. Sacred is an example. The main reason is most certainly that the player doesn't want to lose time running around, and also wants to have an easy way to simply restart a dungeon in order to go farm that boss again and again. I know it sounds cool to say "We have an open world hack 'n slash", but in reality, the only thing it will do is make you lose a massive amount of time and resources production-wise, and dilute the main foci of your game: character evolution. In any case, you will never be a Skyrim or Fallout, so you will never satisfy the players looking for freedom. Trust me -- don't do it.

Character Progression is your keyword; never forget it.

The Action RPG Problem

The "Action RPG" genre is the current trend in the RPG industry; the issue with it is that contrary to its name, it is not representative of the main experience of the game. Consequently, it can be confusing both for developers and consumers to simply describe an RPG as an "action RPG." Let's take a few games that have all been described as action RPGs as examples:

  • The Witcher 2. The main experience is Narrative.

  • Skyrim. The main experience is Sandbox.

  • Dark Souls. The main experience is hardcore Dungeon Crawler.

  • Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. The main experience seems to not be properly defined.

So all those games have completely different goals for their main experience, and as such would appeal to different type of players, but still they all have been described as action RPGs. That's an issue because action RPG is not a real subgenre; instead, it's simply the current marketing slang for "it is cool to play it on consoles."

In term of mechanics, it usually comes down to one of two things (and sometimes both!):

  • Pressing a button triggers a "basic" attack; there is no such thing as "auto-attack."

  • Pressing a button triggers a dodge or parry.

And that's usually it, which is far from being "experience defining," and that's the risk:

  • For the developers to simply describe their game as an action RPG, and as a result maybe mix multiple experiences without realizing it, and end up with a diluted/undefined experience.

  • For the consumer to buy a game simply because it's called an action RPG and end up with an experience that he might not enjoy.

Ever heard someone say, "I bought The Witcher, but it's boring -- there's too much dialog!" or "I bought Diablo, but the story sucks!" or "Damn, why is the main campaign in Skyrim so lackluster?" Well, the reason for this is simple: the people who bought those games didn't realize they were buying a subgenre of RPG that focuses on an experience they don't like. They wanted awesome narration, deep character evolution, and pure action, or maybe more freedom.

And marketing doesn't help with that, as every RPG released nowadays is described as an action RPG.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Of course, there is no doubt that this trend started because marketing needed a way to market "RPGs that are cool to play with a pad." The thing is, in the end, it simply roughly describes what kind of combat you might expect, but not the core experience of the game. And as the trend grows, we can safely expect that in a couple years (if that's not the case already) every RPG will be an action RPG, making the label basically useless.

In the end, it is understandable that marketing a game as an action RPG is sexier than as a "Narrative RPG" or "Sandbox RPG" -- but it's still confusing nonetheless. If you are a developer, don't simply describe your game as an "action RPG," and if you are a consumer, don't simply buy a game because it is called an action RPG; try to understand what the core experience in it is, and see if that's what you want.

The type of combat you have in an RPG does not define your core experience; combat is only a support for that core experience, which is either: story, sandbox, or character evolution.

The Breadcrumbs Technique

So now you have your main experience nailed. You know what you are aiming for. Now what? Here is what I suggest:

  • Define your experience in detail. What I described above are only high level guidelines, but there are multiple variations. For example, like I said above, the narrative RPG genre can be sub-divided again between the games where you can create your character (Mass Effect) and the others where you cannot (The Witcher). This typically will have a huge impact on how your narrative works, the first one being aimed at the player "being" the character and forging it, while the second is aimed at showing a portrayal of a character, allowing the player to get intimate with his/her personality. When you finish Mass Effect, you created your Shepard, but when you finish The Witcher, you know who Geralt is.

  • Make sure that everyone in the team is clear about the type of RPG you are making and what the main experience is; this will put everyone on the same page, and ensure that you get feedback and suggestions that are aimed toward that experience. For example this should avoid suggestions like, "What about adding this and this from Diablo?" when these are clearly features aimed toward the character evolution experience, while you are making a narrative RPG, and thus focusing on creating an immersive character and story experience.

When you're ready, use the breadcrumbs technique.

What I call the "breadcrumbs technique" is basically representing your main experience, as a trail that the player will want to follow -- like a trail of pebbles or breadcrumbs. If we take the example of a narrative RPG that means that you narrative never stops. Party chatter, cutscenes, dialog, events, etc. The player should be following your narration continually, never giving him a rest.

One of the best and recent examples of this is Mass Effect 3; in that game, there is always something happening, narrative-wise. If you are on a mission, every single room of an area will have something to keep you interested: a console with some info, a quick party chat, a point of view, an event like something exploding, or a ship landing, a cutscene, etc. You go from narrative breadcrumb to narrative breadcrumb, then to a big breadcrumb -- a milestone, like the end of a mission, or a huge event in the story. It is a narrative rollercoaster, and when it stops, that's only because you finished the game.

In a Dungeon Crawler that means ensuring that your character and loot progression is permanent, that there is always something to upgrade, often. New shoes, new pants, slightly better shoes -- wow, a massive upgrade for my sword! -- and so on. Your loot system and random number generator needs most of your attention; they generate a big part of your breadcrumbs and should be carefully tweaked, and that's far from simple to do.

Of course the character evolution itself -- levels, skills, feats, attributes, stats, etc. -- needs attention, too. The more ways for the player to enhance his character, the better, and of course with carefully placed milestones, that generates a bigger feeling of progression for the player once in a while, like a level up. This is without forgetting new challenges to put those hard-earned improvements to the test.

It basically comes down to this: divide your experience in small breadcrumbs and big breadcrumbs, and ensure a constant flow of them for the player to follow, with big breadcrumbs (milestones) appearing once in a while to refresh his focus, and make sure that even secondary things bring him back to the main path.

BioWare and Blizzard typically are very good at this, and if we take the Mass Effect series as an example, it even got better at it with each game:

  • In Mass Effect, the secondary quests felt out of synch with the main story. A lot of people said they were boring, and quite a few people actually never finished the game because they got "lost" in the secondary quests.

  • Mass Effect 2 brought that back to being tied to the main experience, by focusing on Loyalty Quests that are tied to the characters and which have an impact on the ending. But there were still a few secondary quests that had no link whatsoever with the grand scheme of things.

  • Mass Effect 3 pushes that even further by using the War Assets system -- yes, it had its downsides, but it had one big thing for it, though, and that's making it so that even the smallest secondary quest is tied to the main experience -- your main path -- by adding to those War Assets, always making sure that you, as a player, never forget your main objective. That way, you never lose your focus; the quests always bring you back to following the breadcrumbs. For that reason, I am pretty sure that Mass Effect 3 had a higher completion ratio per user than most RPGs.

The Temptation of Mixing Experiences

Be careful to not be tempted to add features from other types of experiences just to "please more people." This most certainly won't work.

Most, if not all, RPGs that have attempted this have been received with mild success, whereas RPGs that solely focused on their main experience and making it the best possible have been very successful.

Trying to add a bit of another type of experience brings a lot of chances to simply damage the coherence of your design and experience, dilute it, and scatter the focus of both your production and your player -- and in every case most certainly won't be enough to satisfy the people who like that type of experience, since there won't be any of the depth and ancillary features needed to support it.

I don't know the secret of success, but the secret of failure is certainly trying to please everyone.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Here are a couple of games which tried to mix and match with mild success.

  • Dungeon Siege III mixed storytelling and dungeon crawling, giving something diluted; the end result being not a good enough narrative game, and not a good enough dungeon crawler either, since the depth and granularity of its character evolution was not pushed far enough.

  • Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning mixed and matched basically everything, resulting in an unfocused experience that had most people stop playing the game quite fast. Is it Sandbox? Not really -- you are not so free. Is it a hack 'n lash? Not really, either, even though there is a lot of loot; the random loot generator and its variety are not mastered as well as in a good Dungeon Crawler. It was simply too much of everything, and not any clear drive for the player.

Don't get me wrong, though; there are great things to take or adapt from every kind of RPG. Every time you do so, however, you have to make sure that what you take is going to support your main experience, and not create the tip of a new one which won't be properly supported, feels incomplete, and thus disappointing -- and risks losing your player's attention and interest in the game.

Do you want to make the best chocolate cake, or the best lemon cake?

Trying to make a cake mixing lemon and chocolate might just end being something that pleases neither the people who like chocolate nor those who like lemon. But maybe there are some ingredients from that lemon cake that could enhance the flavor of your chocolate in your chocolate cake? Then by all means, go for it!

In every case, though, be aware that if you start mixing genres this will require an even stronger, innovative and carefully considered design.

So in conclusion, always clearly define your main experience, never lose it from sight, and ask yourself: Are my breadcrumbs clearly defined? Where are they? Do they appear often enough? Do they stop sometimes? Where are my milestones? If you have secondary quests, objectives or features, are they somehow tied to the main path, bringing the player back to it gently?

We've all had those moments where you start an RPG and, after a while, you stop playing it and never finish it, and you can't really put your finger on the exact reason. You are just "not into it anymore."

Usually the reason is that the breadcrumbs stopped, or that the experience as a whole was not focused enough. Ensuring that your main experience, what drives your player, never stops and that they go from a series of small tastes of that experience, to big dishes regularly until they are satiated, will go a long way to help you create a successful RPG of any kind. That being said, you will quickly notice that it is easier said than done, so good luck!

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