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A deep look into RPG mechanics and how they build long-lasting gameplay. Series Intro.

In introduction to a series of blog post I'm going to make on how the RPG genre has built in many mechanisms that extend lastability.

After writing my previous blog post, I started thinking that it would be good to expand on some of the points I made on lastability, not only to give examples or focus on details of why certain systems in certain games are good, but to attempt to suggest further improvements. I quickly came to the realization that this is not the topic for a single blog post, lest I spend the next few months writing it. So I decided to split it up into sections covering different game areas and systems and deliver each as a separate blog post.

 

I have chosen to look primarily into RPG mechanics. The reason for this is that RPGs often employ a range of techniques to extend play-time. I'll take a look at some games that are on iOS, but also some PC or console games. Many techniques used in RPGs can easily be ported over to a whole range of other types of games with the same success.

 

Let's look at a quick example where we translate some RPG concepts onto a golf game.

 

Levelling a character in an RPG through experience points leads to the character gaining stat points and talent points. In an RPG, these stats might be agility, strength, intelligence or stamina. In a golf game, these could be pitching accuracy, shot strength, putting accuracy, etc. Talent points applied to a character in an RPG might unlock skills or percent improvements to existing abilities. In the same way, you could unlock skills pertaining to ball spin, ability to use new clubs, ability to hit more easily out of rough or bunkers, and so on.

 

As a character levels in an RPG, they are able to visit new areas with harder monsters. In our golf analogy, that could be equivalent to unlocking new opponents or courses. In our RPG, killing monsters yields gold and items, whereas in our golf game, beating opponents yields gold (used to buy, repair or upgrade gear) and items, such as new clubs, balls, tees, gloves, tropies, etc.). In an RPG you may take a potion to impart a short duration improvement to strength. In the same way, you could allow potions in the golf game to impart short duration effects such as shot strength, accuracy, the ability to mulligan, etc.

 

As you can see from this simple example, adding RPG elements to a decidedly non-RPG game such as an arcade golf game will instantly add reasons for the player to keep playing in order to be rewarded with that feeling of improvement.

 

This is the very essence of why RPG games such as World of Warcraft keep a great deal of players immersed. There's always a carrot on a stick right in front of their nose whether it be a new level, a quest completed, a new piece of equipment, a new achievement gained or a new dungeon cleared. And indeed, for some its not just the achievement of getting to that next carrot, but of getting to it before everyone else does.

 

However, it's not to say that just adding these carrots would be enough to make a game last. There still needs to be enough immersion provided via storyline, certain large milestones and a sense of progression towards the next big milestone that feels within reasonable reach.

 

Take the original World of Warcraft. At every 10 levels, you get a new and interesting skill. At level 40, you got your first mount, making travel that much easier. At level 50 there were class-specific quests rewarding nice items. Level 60 was the cap, and a chance not only to go into the more exciting high-level dungeons, but to be able to properly fight against other players. After that, raids, which mean't your first epic gear. Then higher-level raids that required you geared to a certain level. At some point, you might have enough gold stored to buy an epic mount. During all this time, a background story unfolds, providing the player with immersion via changing scenery, quests and storyline. During that time, the look of your character slowly transforms from ragged peasant to a hero wearing elaborate and colorful armor. At the lower levels, you'd fly across Searing Gorge and Burning Steppes, seeing skull-level monsters and wondering how dangerous those places could be. A sense of things to look forward to.

 

In our golf analogy, milestones can easily be represented by the opening of new courses to the character, the opening of certain tournaments, the ability to challenge certain opponents. The "story line" of our golf game could be in the form of a ladder system where, as you level and progress, you slowly make your way up. Certain textual storyline elements could then provide some flavour.

 

Recently I decided to buy a rather casual game called Coin Drop on my iPad and spent a few commute rides playing it. It had many of these elements, but they were so watered down or condensed that I finished the game itself in just a few hours of played time. The milestones were in the form of new background scenery and the occasional new obstacle and cut scene that would naturally unlock after a certain number of stars had been picked up (also the prerequisite for finishing each level). Other unlockables were presented as simply skins for the main character once you had replayed levels to achieve a higher number of stars. Once I had completed all levels, I had unlocked more than half of the skins and I didn't feel the need to get the rest of them by playing through the same levels over, especially since the nature of the game was quite random.

 

What can we learn from this?

 

Firstly, the level progression was too fast. Being able to unlock all of the levels, all of the major milestones in the game, within a few hours spelled an end to wanting to play more. There was no character progression - the new skins were cosmetic and didn't add anything to the game. The storyline was fun, but not engaging. There were no additional paths of progression and very little to encourage continuation of play after all of the primary milestones had been reached. Additionally, the barrier to unlocking every last skin was simply a matter of time, and knowing that, after doing that, I'd see nothing new, there was no incentive to do it. If the game had some other mode of play, say an endless mode where I try and achieve a high score, I honestly don't see myself playing that either. Why? Well, there's no incentive. For people like me, high scores are not enough of a carrot to continue playing. High scores are something that worked with Pacman and Space Invaders, but we've come a long way since then.

 

Let's take a look at a second example, again an iOS game, Battleheart. This game captured my attention for a good 20 hours. What went right and what went wrong? This game presented multiple classes to form your party with. That was good. However, they were all unlocked very early in the game. Major milestone gone in a flash. As a side note, there were duplicates of several of the classes, which was bad. There were many locations on the map to visit, but progression was in a linear fashion and it really didn't take long to work through the maps. The most exciting map locations had boss fights on them that in some cases required a combination of leveling and learning. This was good. However, it didn't, again, take too long to beat those fights.

 

Gear was acquired via a random drop at the end of each map location (which were repayable) and for gold which was acquired for competing each map. However, the purchasable gear was the same as the drops (but normally better). There was no gear enhancement system and the drops were pre-defined, not random. Hence, the path to equipping your characters with the best of best gear was straightforward, easy and frankly dull.

 

Leveling occurred at a reasonable, if not slightly fast rate (which was intended by the developers), but the level soft cap was 30, meaning it didn't take too long to level one of every class to the soft cap. I mention soft cap here, since you can level beyond 30, but you don't acquire new skills past that point.

 

As a recap - although this game had some time sinks mostly related to acquiring gear and leveling multiple classes to a certain point, the major milestones were, again, too easily reached. The game itself didn't present enough of a challenge. This could have been easily remedied in a few ways:

- spread out the acquisition of new party members

- include more map locations

- make the later encounters require some further leveling or gearing

- add random drops and an item enhancement system. Do not make the loot straightforward to obtain (from a vendor)

- increase the level cap or slow down leveling

- add a hard mode that you start with the current characters after finishing the main campaign

 

The only thing this game added for replayability was a set of three arena maps with endless play, one of which dropped better loot. However, we're essentially back to the old high score problem once you get all the loot you need.

 

My third and final example for today is Fargoal. This game, on the surface, seems like it should fit my ideals on replayability pretty well. It has an endless number of randomly generated dungeon levels, monsters that scale with your level, challenging gameplay and different difficulty settings. I've probably logged about 20 hours into this game, which honestly really doesn't do it justice. I'll explain why I stopped when I did. I think that fundamentally this game lacks variety. After less than 10 hours of play, you've probably seen all the items you can pick up in the game, and most of the monsters. At that point, the game becomes somewhat repetitive, and to a certain extend, luck-based, which really detracts. Fall down a deep enough hole and you're most likely screwed, and you've burned away a sizable time investment. Also there's really only one milestone in the game - getting to a certain level and retrieving the sword. That carrot is a little too far away, and if you ever do manage to get it you're probably not going to try again a second time.

 

Now that I've examined a few iOS titles and given examples of what was missing from those games, I'll wrap this introduction up. In the next entry, I'll start examining a number of games that I consider to be successful, in some way, at a certain thing. In each post in this series, we'll walk through different facets of good RPG titles and see what gave them the lastability and appeal that I'd hope for in a title I purchase.

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