Warren Spector: Who forgot the 'role' in Role-Playing Games?

In this reprint from the September 1998 issue of Game Developer magazine, famed Deus Ex creator Warren Spector envisions a sandbox future where roleplaying takes center stage.
In this reprint from the September 1998 issue of Game Developer magazine, famed Deus Ex creator Warren Spector envisions a sandbox future where roleplaying takes center stage. The oddest thing about computer role-playing games today is that you never hear anyone talk about the importance of playing a role. You hear about "400 character classes!" "6,753 unique skills!" "827 errand boy missions!" and "A world so big you won't want to explore it all!" Give it a rest. This is shallow. It's silly. It betrays our geeky roots in paper gaming (a medium with only a dangerous, superficial relation to electronic gaming). Role-playing isn't about statistics or exploring randomly generated worlds of crate-filled buildings. It isn't about random quests and combat encounters every sixteen steps. It isn't even about +37 Swords of Instant Critical Hits that do Double Damage From Behind! Roleplaying is about giving players the freedom to act as they see fit, within the framework of a story we provide. Role-playing is about characters developing in unique and meaningful ways as a result of player choices. It's about trying new behaviors in a safe setting before we try them in the real world. In the space I have here, I can't tell you how we make a game that allows us to do all that. But let's start by identifying problems, and by looking at character, setting, and story, and how we usually approach them.


Most RPGs define characters by an arbitrary "class" and/or a tiresome list of statistics. Characters typically have 6-12 attributes (strength, intelligence, and so on) and dozens of skills tracked at a fine level of granularity (lockpick score of 12, sharpshooter 72, computer hacker 53). Secret die rolls determine success or failure in skill use. The problem with this is that two players can do exactly the same thing and get different results because of insignificant differences between their characters. The difference between a 72 and a 73 shouldn't have any impact on game play. Does anyone think this is fun? We have to come up with game systems that tell players what their characters are capable of doing and why they succeeded (or failed). In a computer game, we don't need 42 skills tied to percentile die rolls to simulate skill use. We're clever. We can come up with something better. Leave the dice and character sheets to paper gamers. RPGs often use characters' abilities to bake bread, charm NPCs, and so on. Yawn. Some think hack-and-slash is a more riveting way to use characters' attributes. Ah, combat! It's relatively easy to simulate and it gets adrenaline pumping. That's not enough. Here's a radical concept: let players control when and if combat happens. Our goal should be to make combat an option, but not always the best, and never the only one. Encourage noncombat interactions, especially conversation. We can't compromise conversation -- a terrific tool for differentiating characters -- and still call a game an RPG. Here are some ideas for improving conversations and game play:
  • Conversations should reflect game state. Nothing's goofier than NPCs who keep talking while orcs hack them to bits.
  • Conversations should not involve lists of keywords. They're not fun, nor are they revealing of character. They're filler. They reduce conversations to the status of another stupid puzzle.
  • Conversations should reveal things about NPCs; your responses should reveal things about you. The best way to accomplish this is to make "Yes/No" options the rule in conversational interaction with NPCs. Take, for example, a situation in which you and a friendly NPC face several enemies. The friend says, "I'll hold them off while you escape and Do Important Things..." Leave, and your friend is doomed. Stay, and your mission may come to an end. A Yes/No decision becomes a dramatic moment that reveals something about your friend and about you. That's very compelling game play.
Conversations are made interesting by the things they reveal about the characters speaking, the game world, and the world's state -- not the number of branches in a conversation tree.


I've worked on games in which it takes hours to walk from one side of town to the other. Many popular, award-winning RPGs boast of hundreds of generic towns and randomly generated quests. The shallow simulation of huge environments isn't a good thing. Providing dialogue for scads of NPCs means none of them has anything interesting to say. Creating an entire country means any single building will be devoid of useful objects. It's a matter of time and storage space, and no amount of whack-on-the-side-of-the-head thinking allows you to finesse your way around the problems. Limit the size of your world. Provide several smaller maps. Increase the density of interaction. This accomplishes several goals:
  • Players can explore without searching for something exciting to do. Aimless wandering is the enemy of fun.
  • Developers can populate the world more densely with characters, objects, and quests, and give the illusion of a place with a life of its own.
  • Action can be tailored to player skill. Difficulty can be increased easily as players get deeper into the game.
  • Developers can create more varied locations than in a sprawling world. This last point is critical, and most RPGs do this well. However, most RPGs feature wacky environments straight out of designers' fevered imaginations. It's not asking too much to think in terms of believable, recognizable locations instead of arbitrary game spaces. We should try to acknowledge the conventions of the everyday, even when we create fantasy worlds. In the real world, you can tell you're in a bedroom, as opposed to a bathroom, the instant you enter because of size, placement, and furnishings. More game designers should realize this.
Some games do hint at the possibilities of believable environments, but they don't go far enough. In Duke Nukem (a game I loved), the environment was a gimmick. You knew you were in a movie theater, and you could switch the projector on and watch a bikini'ed babe do her thing -- let's talk about sexism another time -- but you couldn't switch on that projector and blind a sniper before he fired. Imagine if shooting a fire hydrant allowed you to douse a fire. The Ultima games go further, but not always in significant ways (mea culpa!) -- the key is not that every plate and knife and fork be usable, or that players reap wheat, grind it into flour, and bake it into bread. The key is recreating realistic locations and object interactions that are exciting. Give players believable worlds with lots of usable objects that produce predictable, useful results. Let them blast barricades, freeze enemies and then shatter them. Create worlds where water damages paper and gratings creak beneath players' feet. Every game problem should have multiple solutions, by design or because alternatives arise naturally out of the simulation. How players deal with the problems they encounter (whether they choose violence over cleverness, talk first and shoot later, and so on) should affect subsequent interactions with the denizens of the game world as well as the substance of later missions.


Is it just me, or does it seem like every RPG drops players into a huge, all-but-empty world and says, "Go. Hope you find some fun."? Man, have I been guilty of that. After stumbling around for a couple hours, players may even find a clue that they're supposed to Kill the Evil Foozle. It's almost as if there's some unspoken rule against offering RPGers clear goals. The trick shouldn't be figuring out what you're supposed to do (which isn't much fun); the trick should be figuring out how to accomplish what you know you have to accomplish. New goals can be revealed as you go, but damn it, reveal those goals! And make those goals more compelling than "kill everything you see," okay? If working with Richard Garriott taught me anything (and, believe me, it did) it's that an RPG can be more than just a slugfest. More than any other medium of expression, gaming lets people find their own answers to tough questions, rather than imposing an artist's vision of the world on them. It doesn't matter what issues we explore -- tolerance, morality, relationships, whatever -- but let's explore something. Dungeon crawls are all well and good, but we can allow players to explore who they are and what they actually believe. Unlike authors and filmmakers, we can give people the opportunity to test behaviors they'd never try in the real world. I feel we have an obligation to do that. If we provide only one answer (usually violent) we do our medium and our players a disservice. Allow players to make choices and then show the ramifications of those choices: kill everything you see and suffer the consequences; play the pacifist and pay a different price. Games should be rife with ethical dilemmas rather than right and wrong choices. "What are you fighting for?" and "How do you achieve your goals?" should be unavoidable questions. When all is said and done, story goals and tough questions are just tools used to suck in players. If we create small, deep, object-rich simulations that allow multiple solutions to tough problems, players will inevitably stumble upon the "real" goal of an RPG -- to grow a unique alter ego. Doing everything I've outlined above won't assure you a hit and accolades from peers, press, and players. All I know is we have to try. We have to fail gloriously. If we keep settling for RPGs that could have been made five or ten years ago -- and that describes every RPG released in the last couple of years -- we're doomed.

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