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Designing RPG Mini-Games (and Getting Them Right)
by Robert DellaFave on 03/03/14 09:42:00 am   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

At their best, mini-games offer players a meaningful way to test their skills in an alternative game setting. At worst, they're either incomplete or make little sense within the game's context. Before peppering your next RPG with mini-games, it is imperative that you consider their purpose, immersion factor and development time. Oh, and don't forget: they should also be fun.

This post originally appeared on Tuts+, where you can find more of my RPG design tutorials.

What Is a Mini-Game?

What better way to start off a piece on mini-games than by defining exactly what a mini-game is? Unfortunately, that's not as simple as it might initially sound. Mini-games vary widely in scope, in relevance, and in how much they deviate from a game's core mechanics.

Compounding matters further, the line between a mini-game and an essential feature can sometimes be blurred. For instance, if I asked two World of Warcraft players, one who only raids and one who PvPs (that is, takes part in player vs player combat) exclusively, whether the PvP arena is a mini-game or an integral feature, I'd probably receive two completely different answers.

With that in mind, it may be best to group mini-game types—or perceived types—into categories first. Without further ado:

A Game Within a Game

Protagonists have hobbies too. Mini-games of this nature, for lack of a better term, give our hero something to do. The carnival games in Chrono Trigger and the simultaneously revered and loathed Blitzball from Final Fantasy X come to mind.

These types of mini-games have several things in common:

  • They have minimal implications on the story as a whole.
  • Mastering the mini-game will have little to no bearing on your ability to beat the game.
  • Players are typically only required to play this type of mini-game once, if at all.
  • By winning or playing well, players are rewarded with inventory items, gold or other incremental upgrades.
  • They're designed to be a fun diversion.

Mini-games of this nature were exceedingly popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but have since fallen slightly out of favor. That said, there have been a slew of non-RPG releases that consist solely of mini-games—think Mario Party.

Test Your Mettle

You've defeated hundreds of fledgling pigs and forest imps, traversed the Volcano of Doom and crafted your first legendary quiver. Your feats have gone noticed by the powers-that-be and they have invited you to participate in arena combat. Some mini-games will test the skills you've learned thus far. Whether it be in battle or otherwise, RPGs, particularly more modern ones, will often provide players with the option to utilize their newly honed skills in alternative formats. Commonalities include:

  • They generally have little impact on progression. However, in some cases they may be required to advance the story.
  • Winning requires the same proficiency as game progression does.
  • The rewards for winning are usually material or status-worthy in nature, while losing can result in loss of status, injury, or death.

Examples include the Jar of Souls event in Diablo III, and World of Warcraft's PvP arena. A solid non-combat example would be a quiz that relies on your knowledge of the game world.

Jar of Souls: Not as foreboding as it initially looks.

Jar of Souls: Not as foreboding as it initially looks.

Win or Stay Put

And then there are mini-games that require successful completion. Failure to do so usually results in, well... absolutely nothing at all. Remember the Phantom Train from FFVI? In order to progress, players must flip the appropriate switches. Other examples include deciphering riddles and solving logic or spatial puzzles. Common characteristics include:

  • Generally speaking, the only penalty for failure is stunted progression. However, there are exceptions. For instance, you may be tasked with solving a puzzle before gaining entry to an underground treasure cove. In this case, you can still progress without "beating" the mini-game, although you'd be missing out on that new broadsword.
  • Likewise, the reward for winning is usually continued progression.
  • Mini-games of this nature rely more on trial-and-error, creative thinking, and other secondary skills than they do fighting ability.
  • "Win or stay put" mini-games are typically integrated into the main plot.

I know its hard to believe (not really), but some game developers are sadistic. Instead of merely denying you passage for flipping the wrong switch, they'll kill you off! I'd only advocate going this route if the mini-game itself isn't exceedingly complicated and the player is either provided with or can find clues regarding its answer.

Win or Suffer the Consequences

"Win or suffer the consequences" mini-games are very similar to "win or stay put" mini-games, with the only exceptions being increased complexity and that failure can result in game-ending ramifications. Often, mini-games of the "win or suffer the consequences" variety eat up elongated sections of the game. It is here where the proverbial line in the sand between what is a mini-game and what is an essential gameplay feature begins to blur. But for our purposes, we'll dive right in, and treat these sequences as "not-so-mini" mini-games. Our logic being that because these sequences deviate from the RPG staples of grinding and exploration, they are in some ways a different game. Modern Western RPGs incorporate multiple sequences of this type. I'll leave the discussion of whether or not extended gameplay deviations are core attributes or mini-games up to you. But, either way, incorporating them requires a disciplined, well-thought out design schema. Which segues nicely into our next topic:

Mini-Game Design Tips

The good news is that each aforementioned type of mini-game can add extra layers of depth to an otherwise by-the-numbers RPG. But before you commit yourself to building a sprawling arena or judiciary establishment, it's imperative to first consider the impact mini-games will have on your development cycle. With that in mind, let's kick things off with a few general guidelines before diving into mini-game type specific tips:

Mini-Games Are Games Too!

First and foremost, mini-games are just that: games. Painfully obvious, I know, but you'd be surprised at how many developers view them as mere novelties. Alright, so why is this important? Recall the massage mini-game from Final Fantasy X-2—that's why. But, more specifically, mini-games that aren't given the attention they deserve inevitably detract from the overall gaming experience. And that's just bad news.

To counter this, treat each mini-game as an individual game, subjecting to the same pre-production, production and post-production standards that you would your main game. Going further, it's vital that your game at least makes sense within the game's context; more on that later.

Cost Considerations

As an independent developer, you're probably on a rather modest budget. RPGs, regardless of whether they're a 16-bit homage or an open world sandbox, are massive undertakings. Just the balancing process alone has set teams back months, if not years. That said, you must carefully consider the risk-reward ratio of introducing any new feature into your RPG: side-quests and mini-games especially. This will require making some difficult managerial decisions.

To make your task easier, start off by asking yourself: "Can I really afford to design, allocate resources to, code, and polish my idea for a mini-game?" If the answer is "no" or "maybe," either reevaluate the mini-game's scope, replace it with a mini-game that your team can handle, or ditch it entirely.

And if, at any point, you find yourself over-budget or late and forced to make cuts, mini-games should be one of the first features to go. It's for this reason that I suggest waiting until near the end of your development cycle to implement them. That's not to say they shouldn't be planned for in advance, but your core functionality should always take precedence.

A Game Within a Game: Tacked on Mini-Games Are Tacky

Mini-games don't have to be meaningful or intimately tied to the gaming world, but they should at least make sense in the game's context. I recall reviewing a pay-to-win MMORPG that took place in a high-fantasy setting, reminiscent of the Harry Potter movies. Players gained access to a myriad of summoning spells and direct casts, growing more powerful with every level. Standard fare, really.

But there was one peculiarity. In order to quickly restore your magical energy, you would head down to the Fairgrounds and play an unpolished, feature-light version of either Tetris Attacks, Dig Dug or Concentration. The experience was laborious and disjointing. Even worse, early in the game it was really the only viable way to replenish your valuable resources. By scoring an inordinate amount of points you could win other prizes, but the time investment was hardly worth the reward.

This MMORPG broke nearly every rule on how to make "a game within a game." But you won't do the same.

Always keep your game world and protagonist in mind before designing a single mini-games. For instance, if your Hero is a burly ex-Marine with a sword for his left arm, would he really be interested in playing beach volleyball? Would the residents of a game like Fallout 3 pass the time playing video games, despite the lack of electricity? Would a Wizard replenish his magical energy playing Dig Dug? Clearly not.

Yes, because this makes sense in a game about wizardry.

Yes, because this makes sense in a game about wizardry.

However, an underground casino would make total sense in a post-apocalyptic setting, as would a holographic card game in a science fiction game. The point is, mini-games don't have to necessarily utilize the same mechanics as the game itself, as long as they make sense within its context. Other general rules to follow when designing a "game within a game" include:

  • Requirements: Players should never be forced to master a mini-game of this variety. At most, force them to try it out exactly once. If they enjoy it, great; let them play it to their hearts' content.
  • Rewards: Give players a reason to master a mini-game by gifting them with rewards. Limit the rewards chart to incremental upgrades and items that can be won via other means. If the rewards prove too powerful or are otherwise inaccessible, players who don't enjoy mini-games will be placed at a severe disadvantage. In a worst case scenario, this will unbalance your entire game.
  • Originality: Use other mini-games for inspiration, but don't rip them off. If gamers wanted to play Tetris, they can play the original version or one of its many variants. Instead, give players a specific reason to play your mini-games.
  • Polish: If your mini-game is broken, buggy, or otherwise lacking compared to the rest of your game, players will notice. As I mentioned before: If you can't do it right, it's better not to do it at all.

Do note that more ambitious mini-games of this assortment will add serious time and costs to your development cycle, and should be avoided if you're on a strict budget.

A Note on When Requiring Players to Play "A Game Within a Game" Is Acceptable

There's only one set of circumstances where I would advocate players being forced to play a "game within a game":

  • The mini-game doubles as a skill. For instance, if picking locks increases your in-game ability to pick more difficult locks, the art of lock picking is just as much a skill than it is a mini-game. Skyrim's implementation of lock picking is an excellent example of this.
  • The user is given more than one means of completing the task. For example, a player approaches a locked door. He should be given the option to either pick the lock, use his knowledge of explosives to blow up the door, or use sheer brute force to knock it down, depending on his preferred playing style and unique skill set. Thus, instead of requiring players to play a mini-game, you're only asking them to play one of many mini-games.
  • Players cannot proceed unless the mini-game is successfully complete.

Modern lock picking at its finest.

Modern lock picking at its finest.

Test Your Mettle: To Arms!

Ah, the mini-game that tests just how good you really are. The main advantage of this type of mini-game is that you won't have to introduce any new gameplay mechanics, as they already rely on existing ones. However, because they generally take place in alternative formats, they may require additional art and music assets and game logic tweaks. Still, that's better than reinventing the wheel.

The other beauty of "test your mettle" mini-games is that they can be essential or nonessential, have severe penalties or none at all; the choice is really up to you. However, I would suggest that any imposed penalty match the context. Case in point: if you've become the top arena fighter in the entire galaxy and are challenged by the former undisputed champion, you should probably fight to the death. Barbaric I know, but it makes sense.

Not all "test your mettle" mini-games need to be combat-based. You may implement a sequence where you must travel from one end of the world to another in an allotted amount of time, using your prior knowledge of the world to help you succeed. Or you may be tasked with relying on your skills of persuasion to talk yourself out of a sticky situation. Whatever the task, try to adhere to the following:

  • Difficulty scaling: Arena battles should become more difficult, and losing should eventually bear dire consequences—even death.
  • Rewards: Without rewards, there is little reason to participate in a challenge. Sometimes the reward will be that you survive, but if the mini-game is optional, players must be given some sort of incentive for winning.
  • Same but different: Force players to employ slightly different tactics than they would otherwise. PvP in WoW relies on evasion and defense more than it does on pure DPS. By challenging players to experiment with new builds and techniques, your game gains enormous value, all at little cost to the development team.

Win or Stay Put: When Mini-Games Stop Being Fun, and Start Becoming Chores

"Win or stay put" mini-games offer a slew of advantages. They're relatively simple to implement, and thus cost effective. They also do a nice job of breaking up the combat/exploration cycle typically associated with most RPGs. Alright, so they might be a little gimmicky, but that's OK, as long as they're well-designed and challenge players to use a secondary skill set. It also helps if they're not painfully boring.

If you were a fan of Final Fantasy VI, you may recall the Zozo clock puzzle. Simultaneously exhilarating and brilliant, players would receive clues from various NPCs regarding the time on a clock—only, the town was comprised of a bunch of liars. Thus the only way to figure out the right time was by eliminating all the wrong times. Compounding matters, the NPCs made no reference to the minute hand. In order to solve that piece of the puzzle, players were tasked with examining another clock. Thankfully, you're given just enough clues to deduce how to solve the puzzle.

What time is it again?

What time is it again?

And that's the difference between a frustrating "win or stay put" mini-game and a well-designed one: clues. Without them, more difficult puzzles will require an extraordinary amount of trial and error, ultimately becoming a bore. Now, that's not to say the clues need to be blatantly obvious, but they should exist. If you're on a budget, consider relying on the same "win or stay put" mini-game more than once. If you choose to do so, keep these other handy tips in mind:

  • Learning curve: Mini-games need a learning curve too. Let the first instance of a mini-game act as a sort of integrated tutorial, and ramp up the difficulty accordingly.
  • Required or optional: Most mini-games of this variety must be successfully completed in order to progress the plot. However, there's no reason not to weave in a couple of optional variants. Make the optional ones the hardest in the game, and reward players who conquer them with access to a treasure room or other special treat.
  • Fun factor: Pressing switches can be a chore, especially if you're fighting enemies in between. Counter this by thinking outside of the box. For example, a riddle, combat puzzle or timed maze might prove more interesting to players than lighting torches in a particular order. And if you do decide to go a more traditional route, make sure the payoff is worthwhile.

Win or Suffer the Consequences: Awesomely Ambitious

Undoubtedly the most time consuming and costly mini-games to implement, the major benefit of "win or suffer the consequences" mini-games are that they are truly awesome.

Take the murder mystery investigation scene from Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic, for example. For upwards of two hours of game time, players are asked to put away their lightsaber and do some old-school detective work. Requiring an entirely different set of skills, force persuasion withstanding, this sequence acts as a refreshing change from the norm of fighting enemies, exploring new lands, and acquiring skills. I'd argue that the game as a whole benefits from it.

The infamous KOTOR murder mystery investigation. Whodunit?

The infamous KOTOR murder mystery investigation. Whodunnit?

Better yet, there are long-standing consequences to your actions. Without giving too much away, you'll be given the option to go against the evidence. Doing so results in a whole slew of Dark Side points.

Not for the faint of heart (and light of wallet), "win or suffer the consequences" mini-games require a delicate juxtaposition of novelty, fun and context. Whereas side quests are optional and typically incorporate core game mechanics, "win or suffer the consequences" sequences are complete deviations from everything you've experienced thus far. Design them with care, and playtest the heck out of them.

Most importantly, gauge the risk involved. The last thing you want is to increase your budget and development time by 20% just to incorporate an alternative plot device that players abhor.

On a personal note, one of the games I'm working on—Hiro Fodder: A Blue Hope—incorporates one of these sequences. Our little blue slime undertakes a heroic journey to infiltrate the human city. Doing so requires him to find expose secret passageways, uncover clues and spy on guards without appearing in their field of vision. It's terrific fun, but, admittedly a gigantic risk.

Conclusion

Let's look at an overview of the cost-to-value ratios of the different mini-game types:

  • Game within a game: High expense and production time; value to gamer varies.
    • As a skill, a game within a game's value increases.
  • Test your mettle: Low expense and production time; moderate value.
  • Win or stay put: Lower cost and production time; low to moderate value.
  • Win or suffer the consequences: Mid to very high cost and production times; high value.

Be providing context to your larger mini-games, and fun to your purposely divergent ones, you can add depth, replay value and additional layers to your RPG. Just be aware of what you're getting into before entering production, and always keep your time and budgetary restraints in mind.


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