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"Developers shouldn't shoehorn RPG elements into games that don't need them." Is this right? This blog article attempts to analyze the real problem, and suggests a solution.

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez, Blogger

February 19, 2012

22 Min Read

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 between them? 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 and hard to miss, as you will inevitably find big heart containers in the course of the game as you explore the world."

(To be fair, Enslaved actually does give a popup notification when the player has enough red orbs to be able to purchase an upgrade.)

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

So, leveling-up is his problem. Level-up seems to be the culprit.

Is it, now?

Let's take a step back and make a background check on the suspects.

Leveling-up is having your character improve over time. Having him start out relatively 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.

When you put it that way, that makes sense, doesn't it? You wouldn't want the game to be highly difficult and complex right at the start, would you? Especially when you've only started and don't know anything about the nuances yet.

Now in traditional RPG games, those improvements are largely formulaic. Allocating more points in your strength rating simply adjusts the result of the formula for damage.

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

Why indeed? Remember Hellgate London? A part-rpg part-shooter, where the deciding factor whether your shots 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 an action 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 without requiring dice rolls.

Character Improvement

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

Now let's take a look at how other games implement character improvement.

Mario improves over time, as he gains the Tanuki suit and the cape, the costumes give him new abilities.

Link gets the boomerang, the bombs, the bow, and they all change how Link can dispatch 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 the improvements in these other games I mentioned is so easy.

You get Mario's Tanuki suit or Link's boomerang as obtained items, free of charge, ready to be tested, as opposed to getting them by having to spend hard-earned skill points to purchase skills from a list.

Needless to say, new players will find it hard to visualize the worth of each skill by looking at a dull list.

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 that skill, 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.

Furthermore, 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.

The effect is magnified when you have a stat system. Traditionally, level-up provides only a miniscule amount of points to let you improve your stats. Which should you improve? If you're new, you'd be able to discern any practical difference only after having devoted so many points in one stat.

By that time, you'd be so many hours in to the game, and if it turns out your character isn't working how you like, well, too bad. Better hit the Load Game button, buddy. But in case you don't have a suitable save point at hand, you might as well restart the game. Oh boy, skipping cutscenes I've seen before, here we go!

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.

Traditional RPG games then, 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".

This won't necessarily work for non-RPGs.

The real problem behind the respec issue isn't the respec.

The real problem is that the traditional RPG's way of giving character improvement (i.e. level-up), is usually, a slow, permanently life-changing process for a character, and as such, players should decide 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. Or any game, for that matter.


It is that uncertainty that new players have of the game's system that we need to help eliminate.

The game must be designed to subtly help them learn, encourage them to experiment with little consequence!

Allow the players to learn from the mistakes they make in their choices for improvement, without punishing them for their lack of knowledge!

The traditional stat system punished players by having the effects of their decisions on stat improvements be practically obvious only after spending too lengthy and costly an investment (of allocated stat points). The punushment is when a beginner realizes he wasted so much time making a character that does not perform the way he wanted. This was what respec was trying to fix.

In the context of videogames, why are we not questioning the relevance of the antiquated stat system in this day and age? Why was Bethesda the only (prominent) one thinking about that?

Every time you reveal new mechanics to the player, every time you increase the depth to what the player can do, every time you change the obstacles he faces, you have to equally impart the proper knowledge for the player to allow him to firmly grasp it.

Perhaps subtly, with visual, aural, or narrative cues, or perhaps with reward and/or punishment (punishment for not being attentive to the teaching of how the game works, not punsihment for lack of knowledge of the game's system!).

Whichever way you choose, you have to encourage the player to learn somehow.

For example, in Dark Souls, enemies all have tell-tale signs when, and in what manner they will attack.

As a hypothetic example: If the enemy is raising his sword above his head, wait and see, and you'll realize he always makes three overhead strikes after he does that.

Now that you know that fact, everytime he raises his sword, you know in advance what he's going to do, and you can attempt to react accordingly.

Now, if instead he starts to point his sword towards you, you'll find out (in an unfortunate way) that he's in a state where no matter what attack you do, he'll be able to counter it with a critical hit. This is called parry.

(Fortunately he tires of pointing his sword eventually, thereby stopping his parry. Alternatively, you can just spam ranged attacks when he does that and he won't be able to retaliate. Of course when you do that, he'll realize his folly and stop parrying.)

Its these visual cues you have to learn to read in order to best your foe.

When you die, you are forced by the game to drop your collected "souls". Souls are essentially your money and at the same time, your unused experience points.

You are then given one chance to reclaim your dropped souls, by being automatically revived to a (hopefully) nearby safe house and having to go all the way back to where you died.

If you died once more on the way without being able to reclaim your dropped souls, they are lost forever.

It is this simultaneous reward and punishment that is indirectly telling you to stop slacking and perform better in combat. (When this happens to me I always think, "Your souls are held hostage! What are you going to do about it?")

For another example, when Mario gets the cape, you'll find nearby that the coins in the sky are lined up in curves.

While the new player is in the mindset of "oh, I want to get these coins" while struggling with the cape's flying ability in trying to get them, he is unintentionally training himself on proper flying techniques.

The frustration of the trial-and-error that he experiences while getting the hang of flying is mitigated, because he is getting coins in exchange, as a reward.

Type of Player Skill Required

The Mario cape is a design of character improvement which requires the player's skill of reflexes and hand-eye coordination to master.

The traditional stat system on the other hand, is also a design for character improvement, but it requires the skill of number crunching and min-maxing to master.

It certainly is a respected skill of players figuring out an RPG's formulae and abusing them to dominate the game.

This is another question you have to ask: "do I want to garner the appeal of these min-maxers in my (non-RPG) game?"

There's no right or wrong answer here. It depends on the goals you've set with your game. If yes, go ahead and add the traditional stat system. If not, you might want to think of alternatives.

Here's a hint: choose to design systems of character improvement whose mastery requires a type of skill found in your intended audience.

This is pretty broad though, you may even choose to design things in such a way that it will encourage your player to learn a skill he previously didn't have!

Also, ask yourself "do I want that there is a single tactic that will dominate the game, such that all the other tactics are rendered useless"?

Whether you add a stat system or not, you have to be mindful of this. With min-maxers though, they will be expecting this as they attempt to abuse the formulaic system.

Accommodating Play Styles

Leveling-up also consists of letting the player choose how he wants the character to improve. He may opt for new stealth abilities, new attack abilities, et al.

Basically, its allowing the player to play using different play styles. This is at the heart of the western tenets for RPGs: the game should allow you to roleplay however you want.

I believe the characteristic of accommodating different play styles is already adapted in many non-RPG games long before the "let's put RPG elements everywhere" idea came in. Even if they may not be quite as varied, compared to full-fledged RPGs.

In Gradius, you can choose to be faster, have missiles, have a shield, or have a little guy who shoots with you, 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.

You should start looking at how other genres accommodate various play styles and see how they would work for you the next time you plan on "RPG elements" for your game.

If accomodating various play styles would be breadth, then upgrades would be depth. (You will literally see this with the so-called "skill tree" diagrams that Diablo popularized.)

When you design a new character improvement that complements the previous ones you've made, that's adding depth.

If the new character improvement instead conflicts with the rest and encourages a different play style, that's adding breadth.

For example, let's say we have an action game.

You have a standard melee attack. Attacking would call for skill in proper timing of attacks.

Then say you added a jump ability. The jump ability would call for skill in properly moving your character while airborne.

Combine the two and you now have air attacks. The skills needed in each ability now have to be performed simultaneously.

That is adding depth to the player's actions.

Say then you've added a crawl ability. This conflicts with the jump ability. You can't jump and crawl at the same time now, can you?

But the crawl ability complements the attack ability just as well. You can crawl and attack at the same time.

This calls for a new play style. Instead of bringing down a heavy slash by attacking while falling from a jump, you crawl, sneaking on an unsuspecting enemy and attacking him by surprise.

That is adding breadth to the player's actions.

To summarize, it is the allowing of two or more abilities to be combined that is depth. While breadth is the grouping of certain abilities that, while they cannot be used together, each grouping (henceforth called a tactic) is, generally speaking, an equally viable method to win.

For example, in God of War, combat has a good mix of breadth and depth.

The depth is in the combo system of combining certain patterns of light and heavy attacks.

As for breadth, to quote Mike Birkhead's article:

These are Kratos' abilities:

  • Light Attacks

  • Heavy Attacks

  • Magic Attacks

  • Special Attacks

  • Throws

  • Dodging

  • Jumping

And I'd like to add to that list the simple:

  • Moving

(While I refer to these as abilities, Mike refers to them as actions.)

You'll notice each of those entries in the bullet list clearly correspond to a button press, analog stick movement, or a discrete combination of button presses to perform them.

And the grouping of those aforementioned abilities (i.e. tactics):

  • Poke – keeping on the move and using only light hits.

  • Crowd Control – committing to big moves, like special square, and controlling the crowd.

  • Crush – committing to big, slow, heavy moves

  • Flank – rolling and jumping around damaging attacks to get at the backside of a monster.

  • Launch – knocking things into the air and keeping them up there.

  • Throw – throwing is not only damaging, but also leaves you free from attack while throwing.

  • Nuke – magic is generally a get out of jail free card. All damage and no penalty.

And I'd like to add to the list:

  • Snipe - keeping away and focusing on ranged attacks

(While I refer to these things as tactics, Mike refers to them as intentions.)

As you can see, with so many tactics available for the player to use, the game has a good amount of breadth.

In contrast, I remember the mention of a certain MMO (I honestly forgot the name), where the character classes were changed to essentially have no distinction.

Thief, mage, and warrior all had the same set of abilities, just under different names and different visuals. Anyone could specialize to be a DPS, tank, or support.

Imagine if you had a playerbase where everyone were thieves (hey, it doesn't matter, they can specialize to any play style anyway), would that make sense in the narrative?

Not only did they take away the breadth, they put a fake one as replacement.

Forced Variation

To clarify, a player might very well change his play style on a whim or whenever he feels the need to do so, even if its not required. But you can also surprise a player by designing new situations where some of his play styles won't work at all!

You can have your game change victory conditions every now and then, introduce an enemy with immunity of the player's usual attacks, or perhaps design the game so the player requires teaming up with another player of a different play style.

Each boss battle in the 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 design your game to accommodate to different play styles and still have every stage require different conditions to win, for example.

Take Final Fantasy Tactics. One mission may call for annihilating every enemy, the next may tell you that you only need to defeat one particular enemy, and another may require you to ensure a particular ally is alive by the end of the fight.

How you achieve each of those goals, its up to you. Will you complement your troops with healers, or will you bet on a risky move and field only black mages?

Granted, it may turn out that only one tactic is best for each situation, limiting the breadth somewhat.

You need to be mindful of that, whether that is what you want for your game or not. No ultimate right or wrong in this one, because it'll depend on your situation.

Deus Ex might very well also be a good example (I have not played it yet, sadly).

Another example: a new enemy type is nigh impossible to hurt because of his thick metal armor. Usual attacks don't work, this is the forced variation.

Now, each character class have their own tricks up their sleeves to dispatch this new foe.

A warrior might need to use piercing attacks to penetrate the thick armor.

A mage, on the other hand, might use a lightning bolt to electrocute the metal-clad enemy.

While a thief might need to nimbly climb the enemy's gigantic back to hit at his exposed nape of the neck.

The warrior's method is a risky close-in melee attack, the mage's method a ranged style of play, while the thief's method might call for good timing of jumps.

Then, all their methods of attack might need to be different once more, when against another, different type of enemy.

This is what I mean when I say creating variations in requirements now and then for different play styles.

As for making variations without respecting a player's preference of play style, that is equally a viable decision to make for your design of the game.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is primarily a game of combat, interspersed with what is essentially a treasure hunt.

You are forcibly given a different play style to use (from combat to investigating), but in fact, it is the alternating between the two that helps players not get bored with too much combat for too long a time.

(While I may have described that as something that seemed like an arbitrary decision in the design of that game, I should note that its true that Batman, while primarily a character who beats up bad people, is indeed, also learned in the ways of crime investigating.)

Games like Half-Life and God of War are games of action, but with the occasional puzzle obstacle, sometimes mixing both puzzles and combat in certain situations!

Filip Coulianos has a very good article on that subject that I recommend.


So I believe allowing and encouraging 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.

When making systems of character improvement (equivalently called "level-up" systems), we have five concepts at hand here:

  1. Depth: character improvements should allow for interesting combinations

  2. Breadth: certain groups of character improvements should cater to different play styles

  3. Forced Variation: (as in variation of victory conditions, in the broadest sense) to eliminate boredom from having to use the same play style over and over

  4. Intuitivity: the game should encourage the player to learn about your system of character improvement to empower him to make better decisions

  5. Appropriateness: lastly, of course, in every system you make, the skills you ask of from the player should not conflict with the theme (using too much chance factor in a game about reflexes).

You equally need all five to end up with a non-shallow, understandable RPG-esque game.

Because shallowness, cheapness, and lack of intuitiveness is the real culprit here, not "RPG elements in a non-RPG game".

So how about these as few suggestions to get your brainstorms started:

(In these examples, I refer to skills or upgrades as various features in the game that improve a character, by giving him new properties, or allow him to do new actions.)

  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 "tutorial mission" requires his use of that new skill to succeed. (The weapons in the Zelda games are also a good example.)

    Afterwards, the next non-tutorial, standard missions given can be finished using any of the skills he previously used, or perhaps you can require that he has to use all of them in conjunction (its all up to you).

    He'll have more confidence in choosing which skill to level-up now, since he's had past experience 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 tutorial missions so he gets more stealth skills!).

  2. Mentor: An advisor AI looks at your past decisions and your current stats to predict what you might be trying to do with your character build, and advise accordingly on that.

    While this is not easy to do, I believe this is the least intrusive improvement you can add to an existing system that uses stats.

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

  4. 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 do this.

  5. 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 only, 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.

  6. Decking it out: Skills can be given to, and removed from characters freely without any penalty whatsoever, but each character can bring with him only a handful of skills upon entering combat.

    Obviously, his selection of skills would be locked for the duration of the combat.

    Bioshock, Final Fantasy Tactics, and even Magic: The Gathering are approximate examples of this.

    How players obtain the skills in the first place, is a different topic. You may want to go with a purchasing system (like what all the three aforementioned games do), or you could try another idea.

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