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Tips for RPG design from the Harvest Moon franchise

The Rune Factory games add RPG elements to the Harvest Moon farming franchise -- and here, the series' producer shares lessons he learned making it.
Yoshifumi Hashimoto is the chief creative officer at MarvelousAQL -- the developer behind games like The Last Story, and also the Japanese publisher of the Harvest Moon series. He works as a producer on the Harvest Moon franchise, too. Here, he shares five lessons he learned while working on the Rune Factory series. The games are a spinoff from the popular Harvest Moon franchise -- but they're set in a fantasy world, and include combat and other more traditional RPG tropes that the main franchise does not include. "If there's one person after this session who's inspired to make an RPG, that's a new beginning for them, right?" Hashimoto said, during his session at GDC 2013.

1. Cater to different player types

RPGs attract players of varying skill levels, Hashimoto says. In Rune Factory, the designers included elements that would give a boost to players of lower skill that advanced players could ignore. For example, in the farming system, players could take a break from exploring the dungeons and cultivate their crops -- but players who game's content quickly, they wouldn't need to worry about dealing with the system as freuqently. "People who are good at the game do not need to rest and cultivate crops," says Hashimoto, "while people who feel the game is hard can do so." "The game design adapts to the player's play style," he says. "It was very, very effective... what we want to avoid is saying, 'Hey, this is how you're supposed to do it,' to force upon the player how to do X, Y, Z." "I just want to make sure there's an option, and that will be something that will allow players of various levels to play our games."

2. Embrace your technical problems in the story

Rune Factory, being a Harvest Moon farming game, includes a seasonal cycle. During the summer months, the game's characters will don swimsuits. There was one technical problem with this: "At the time, we couldn't make the characters tan, and we were looking for a way to get around this," Hashimoto says. Their solution was to create some backstory: In the world of Rune Factory, the characters apply magical tattoos that act as sunblock, which could be implemented as textures. "It was a way to take something realistic and put a fantasy spin on it," says Hashimoto.

3. Real-world research can apply to a fantasy RPG

When developing the aforementioned swimsuit system, the developers weren't sure if farmers, living a simple life of hard work, would really care about fashion. Eventually they concluded, "Because they were doing the same day-in, day-out, it turns out they did want to stand out," says Hashimoto. When developing the Harvest Moon games, Hashimoto travels around Japan talking to farmers about their lives. When he posed the fashion question, it turns out that this intuition was correct. "When we asked the farmers about this situation, it turned out they felt the same way," says Hashimoto. Including real-world touches like this in games is important, says Hashimoto, because players are "not going to think [the game] is fun unless they really understand what you're trying to communicate," he says. Realistic touches achieve this. "I want to make a game where we don't just lean on the fantastical, but somehow include the real and relatable," he says.

4. Make your game never-ending, in the right way

You should create gameplay systems that allow players to keep enjoying your game if they wish to. Player choice, says Hashimoto, is the game medium's big advantage over film. "In games, we have an advantage over games in that players can choose their route," he says. In the Rune Factory series, the main character can choose a mate, get married, and procreate -- and that lead Hashimoto to wonder "how far can we go in living your life in this game?" He designed the game so that "if you want to simply live together with your partner, you can," he says. But, at the same time, "if you want to go defeat the demon together, you can." The important thing was keeping in mind that the world of the game was an important thing: "We wanted to make a game where people would feel they didn't want the world to end, because if they cleared it, that world would be over."

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