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Focusing Creativity: RPG Genres

January 24, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

Designer Jordane Thiboust, who deeply investigated the RPG genre while in preproduction for a next generation title, shares his hard won insight -- mainly, that mix and match genre-bending isn't the best way to deliver a polished core experience.

The RPG genre is a complex one. I've always known this, but I never realized just how much until recently. Beyond the complexity of the mechanics, the multiple systems, and the narrative, I noticed that what makes the RPG genre complex is focusing on, and nailing, the player experience.

I really started noticing this during the pre-production of a project I was working on. A lot of feedback or suggestions would be misguided because of the misconception that whatever was brought to our my attention was "RPG stuff."

The reason behind this is that the term "RPG" is used to describe lots of games, and it is easy to overlook the fact that some of those games have a completely different goal for their player experience. That's the hardest part; narrowing down that experience, asking yourself "What will drive the player for 30-plus hours?" and sticking to it... Instead of simply adding every RPG feature that you can think of.

For that reason, I found out that it is extremely important to subdivide the RPG genre by the experience of each subgenre and focus on, and then clearly decide, which of those subgenres you are aiming for.

This will drive both your production and the player who buys your games; this will help you focus on what type of features matter and might even be mandatory, and what features have no place in your game and might even have a detrimental impact on it.

Since the term "RPG" is used so loosely, for most people, every RPG game just belongs to the same big pool. They are all simply "RPGs." This is both true and false at the same time; while they are indeed all RPGs, two RPG games can sometimes have a completely different drive for the player.

Using a food analogy, if RPG were cakes, you could indeed say that they are all cakes, but still, there is a pretty big difference in taste between a chocolate cake and a lemon cake, and that's exactly why it is important to know what kind of RPG you are making -- because, as in cooking, this will determine the list of ingredients that you must use and the ones that you probably shouldn't.

So let's start by listing the different RPG subgenres, as well as their main ingredients.

The Narrative RPG

The narrative RPG, the most common type -- games like The Witcher, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age are all part of that subtype. In that genre, the player is driven almost completely by the narration; he wants to enjoy the story, the setting, and the characters. Even for his own character, it is important that he evolves narratively (even more so than mechanically).

What that means is that most of your production effort and features should be focusing on supporting this -- especially for what is usually called the "critical path." That's your main quest, campaign, or whatever you call it, the thing that the player will focus on and will want to finish.

In a Narrative RPG, immersion is critical; everything from combat to navigation, level design, and art direction, should always keep that word in mind: Immersion.

Some of the most critical ingredients for narrative RPGs are as follows:

  • Characters should be three dimensional; you should feel like they all have a story to tell and that they are unique in some way -- even if that's simply because they talk in a weird way or have a huge scar on the face.
  • Every location should tell a story; this should be a strong focus on the level design side. Why are those monsters here? Why is it shaped like this? Why is it decorated like this? Ask yourself plenty of questions. Even if you don't always give the answer to the player, just defining those answers will help you create immersion.
  • Even itemization should help immersion -- Why does that guy drop that sword? Where does it come from?
  • Your combat mechanics and the powers displayed should feel coherent with your universe. Ideally, make use of some of the character's powers in dialog and cutscenes. Yes, your healer character can and should be able to heal a wounded NPC in a cutscene.
  • Almost everything should feel like it is evolving narratively: the main character, the sidekick characters (if any), the areas the player travels through, the secondary character, and even the "bad guys."
  • Your dialog must have multiple answers; avoid doing too much linear dialog, leave the opportunity to the player to create the personality and morality of his character. There is one exception to this, though, and that's if you create a narrative RPG based on a predefined character. The Witcher is one of those, for example; in that case, your goal is to create a portrayal of that character, to let the player become intimate with who that character is. This prevents you from having extremely contrasted choices in terms of personality or morality, as you have to stay close to the original character. But if it's done well, it's also extremely rewarding for the player.

The Witcher 2

There are a few ingredients that should be either avoided, or limited in their complexity, as they could actually dilute your main experience and lose your player's focus on the story. For example:

  • Enemies should not respawn, or only do so if it makes sense narratively. Indeed, enemies respawning just for the sake of it, serves only one goal: grinding. You want to avoid this in a good narrative RPG, since if the player starts to grind, that means he is not following your story anymore, and in turn that your narrative has failed to keep him going.
  • You don't need a crafting system, but if you really want one or can't avoid having one due to the story -- as in The Witcher -- avoid making it complex, or grinding-oriented. Dragon Age II is a good example of this; its resource nodes only need to be harvested once and that's it, thus completely avoiding the grind, and instead simply giving an incentive for exploration.
  • You don't need a very complex character evolution and itemization; you are not Diablo. Even though it is important for your player to feel that he can customize his characters and make them evolve more or less as he wishes, the system should not be too deep or complex. Remember, you want your player to feel driven by your story, not by comparing a new sword every 10 seconds or by thinking for 30 minutes about where to put that next talent point. As for itemization, it is way more important for it to make sense narratively, to have lore attached to it, than to be extremely flexible. Basically, it's better for the player to acquire Excalibur, rather than for the game to drop 20 longswords, all with slightly different stats.

Narrative and immersion are your keywords; never forget them. 

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Glenn Currie
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Excellent article. This will help me with my own designs. Thank you!

Matheus Cardoso
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Wow! Nice text! But what about MMO's?

Svein-Gunnar Johansen
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First of all, excellent article!

As for MMORPGs: Most of these are guilty of mixing too many things into the cauldron at once, with variable success rates. It might be argued though, that the ones that make it work, don't mix everything all at once, but spread it over different timeslices.

My experience with MMORPGs is primarily with Final Fantasy XI, which goes a bit against the norm and actually has a story. But the story based aspects of the game, is to a large extent experienced separately from the other aspects of the game.

Initially, it is a sandbox exploration experience, but to advance you must go into character driven "leveling grind" mode on occasion. These two rarely overlap in the same gaming session.

When you change into "story mode", grinding and exploration are likewise put on the backburner.

I reckon many of the same rules apply to traditional JRPGs, allthough the change of timeframe is often faster and more frequent.

Robert Boyd
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I don't agree that mixing experiences can't work because we have many examples of it working just fine. Your typical Japanese-style RPG is a mix between a narrative RPG and a dungeon crawler RPG. To give two recent examples, Persona 4 Golden and Ni no Kuni both basically feature 2 modes - there's the story-heavy town mode (or life sim mode in P4G) and the exploration/dungeon/combat/character-customization mode and you'll frequently spend an hour or two in each mode before switching to the other.

Carlo Delallana
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Attempting to tackle what others say "can't be done" is a fools errand...until that one fool figures it out rendering the naysayers foolish.

This is one of the reasons why I love working in games, i'm surround by people who see the word "can't be done" as permission to try!

Jordane Thiboust
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Actually Ni No Kuni is a strongly narrative RPG, but even more as you say it is a JRPG. They are a specific genre altogether, but actually so specific that no one ever mistake them for something else.

Thus why we call them "JRPG" and not just RPG, what I wanted to focus on here are the three main RPG genre that are most often unclear to people especially when they are somehow all flagged as "Action RPG".

As for mixing experience, as I say you can do it, but you have to ensure that you are doing it for the right reason and that you know exactly what you will gain or lose by doing so.

Most of the time you will end up noticing that you are simply diluting your main experience by doing so, but again, this is not an hard rule, simply a guideline.

Christian Nutt
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As you can imagine, I thought about the JRPG a lot in the context of this article while I was working through the draft process and editing it for publication. But this is primarily an article, I decided, aimed at Western developers making Western-style games, and on top of that, mainly packaged console games.

I did recognize that JRPGs don't always fit the mold suggested by this article, but I also thought about the rather deliberate way in which they are designed to do so.

Michael Pianta
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I would love to see this article updated to incorporate a discussion of JRPGs and possibly also Strategy RPGs a la "Final Fantasy Tactics." To a certain extent they could be fit into the existing archetypes you're discussing (most JRPGs seem like a sub-type of the "Narrative RPG" category, for example) but then again, then again they have a lot of unique qualities that might force them into their own category.

John Flush
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You comment is finally made something click I hadn't put together until right now - the reason I can't stand RPG's anymore. You are right, they usually have a heavy narrative section, then go off with fighting for a while. The problem is when the RPG world decided to make everything action based instead of turn based it turned into a much 'faster' game. It made the talk sections very "boring" in comparison to the point that it was either an action game or a talk game. When things were more turn based it game the lull to the combat that blended better with the talkie parts for me. It is rare that I get in the mood to play a game that is both of these qualities, action and narrative, I either want to relax and 'watch' something while still interacting, or play something with a lot of action. I tend to gravitate to action if it is provided though so even if I'm in the mood to play narrative if a bunch of action gets thrown in I tire of the narrative and just want to get back to the action - thus killing the effectiveness of the narrative.

It was one of the reasons I think I like Eternal Sonata so much despite the fact I can hardly touch a JRPG anymore. It was as fast as I wanted it to go, so when I got into the mood to play narrative type games it was a consistent feel - until one got to the end of the game where it forced action upon you... which was exactly when I felt the game lost focus and such for me. Luckily it was near the end so I just cranked it out the rest of the way.

Thom Q
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I feel like I'm kind of spamming this site with the same game over & over, but I think Jordane missed one up & coming genre of role playing games; The complete narrative-less, skill tree-less multiplayer RPG. Kind of abstractly defined by Minecraft, but completed as RPG in DayZ.

If there is no story, if there are no skills, all a player is left with is the world in which the game takes place, and its inhabitants.
Day Z has no customizable characters, no good or evil options, no skill trees, no achievements and no end-game, but it's interesting to see that players get engrossed enough in the world and the actions in it, that they form their own characters, and play like that. People become bandits, hero's, medics, taxi drivers, etc, all by themselves. In many ways it's the Anti-MMO / RPG...

I think the narrative-less genre will become one of the great new mechanics that will be used in countless of games over the next years.

Jordane Thiboust
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I kind of missed them on purpose, like I said above to Robert Boy, I wanted to focus here mainly on the three Big RPG genres that are most often put in the big bag of "Action RPG", MMORPG, JRPG, Tactical RPG, or other very abstract genre like Minecraft are clearly defined for everyone and don't have that kind issue.

Not to mention that MMORPG and JRPG would probably need a full article just for them, as they are very specific, and going into the JRPG especially would mean diving into the Japanese culture and to why and how it impact their vision of RPGs in general, so much that we are actually calling them differently.

Matt Robb
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Games like Minecraft aren't RPGs, they're just sandbox. As with a real sandbox, some people decide to play pretend, others just like to build things out of the sand. A person can choose to play a role in a variety of games. To be an RPG, a game is *designed* to facilitate playing a role.

Adam Bishop
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I think you're taking the term "role playing" too broadly. A role-playing game isn't just a game in which a player plays some ambiguously defined "role", it's a game where a number of roles within a system are possible (and often necessary) and the player can choose which one they prefer (or, in the case of party-based RPGs, where the player plays all the roles through separate characters).

I also think one of the keys of RPGs is that they're stats-based rather than action-based. One of the primary things that sets an RPG apart from other games is that the *character*'s skill level is just as important as the player's, and that the character's skill level changes over time.

Raymond Grier
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I agree with Adam. The term RPG itself has become grossly misused as console developers found making more traditional RPGs without a keyboard was difficult to do. Having an inventory, a skill level and the ability to talk to NPCs doesn't necessarily = RPG.

Thom Q
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Jordane: True, I get where you're coming from. And yeah JRPG's is a totally other beast all together.

Matt: I did not say Minecraft is an RPG. I did mention the words RPG & Minecraft in the same sentence, so I can understand that that can be difficult.
An RPG is however not just a game designed to to facilitate playing a role, because with that statement, you encompass all games. It's about different roles.

Adam: You are right, a skill level is one of the traditional mechanics RPGs have used, tabletop & videogames. What I was trying to say is that with the evolution in technology they will be needed less and less, since skill levels are basically a mechanic to replace actual skills. In D&D games the archer could shoot better, hence his higher archery skill-points, which then translates into a formula based on the dice roll. But when playing in a virtual world, a place where actual archery can take place, somehow buffing your skills with extra perks when leveling up is a bit of an unneeded mechanic imo -> better archers will land more shots..
Im not for removing skilltrees all together, and in certain games it can be very suitable. Im just saying that with the advancements made in games, the adaptation of tradional "work arounds" is less needed. Shooters have moved from being a type of game, to a mechanic..

Adam, Raymond & Brion:
I think with the classification of any kind of media / art, the best way to go is the tradional explanations, to avoid miss communication. An RPG is a fictitious game that can be played as different characters. Nothing more, nothing less. With a videogame RPG you can swap out the fictitious with virtual. Skillpoints & Skilltrees is just a mechanic used.

Thom Q
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Brion: I used a dictionary. I tend to follow those more then random people on the internet

Nick Harris
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DayZ provides a glimpse into the future of videogames.

There may not be the orthodox prescripted story imposed on the player from without,
but there is definitely an emergent history generated from within via the actions of its
participants within the context of the simulation. Griefing is less of a problem now that
players do not recieve a starting weapon and hopefully the holstering of weapons will
be added before it leaves Beta as this would encourage friendly collaboration:

A couple of players could lower the danger of looking for resources around a helicopter
crash site, by having one watch over the other from a remote hill with a sniper rifle as
their buddy was preoccupied with scavenging and inventory management. Their chat,
their anxiety, the tension within the relationship between them, would forge a diary of
'Day N in DayZ': a history they wrote with their actions, soaked in the atmosphere of
dread and paranoia that the game system cultivated, yet allieviated by the feeling of
protection that the player projects (perhaps, ultimately erroneously) onto a stranger
who has yet to betray them and in these dangerous days they are forced to call friend.

Yet, this aesthetic could not exist without the dynamics of fellowship, yet that requires
the mechanics to approach a complete stranger with your pistol lowered, engage in a
conversation to establish that they are indeed friendly and commit to both holstering
their weapons before exchanging food and medical supplies as a "gesture of trust". To
release DayZ without this simple mechanic is to frustrate the emergence of team play
and the different kinds of 'stories' that can happen to those playing as a friendly group.

This concrete example brings me around to my main point: Entanglement.

Entanglement is what will ultimately unify all genres of RPG. It is the provision of some
mechanisms that support dynamics that once opted into incur a penalty on abandoning.
Forging friendships in DayZ is almost an example of this, except there is no penalty for
betrayal: player B could return to the hill with what he found at the crash site ready to
share what he had found as arranged and player A could snipe him as he got close and
loot his corpse for everything he had. Unless there is some mechanism where player A
was blacklisted as a result of his actions, then some new player N could make the same
mistake. Yet, in the world of DayZ it would actually be against its core aesthetics of
fostering paranoia and dread if such a mechanism were to be introduced. Probably, the
only thing that would work is if the game prevented players changing the name of their
character mid-game. They could still reinvent their identity and appearance when they
inevitably died, but player B knowing that player A was indeed that jerk who betrayed
his friendship during his previous life would stop him trusting him a second time, even
a 'culture of revenge' could sprout up led by a group of white knights who would enact
retribution on player A on B's behalf, provided they had incriminating video. Hence, it
may need a way to capture the last five minutes of gameplay that was always on that
had a Theatre mode and the ability to upload proof of misconduct to the community...

Entanglement also works in a single-player adventure. A relationship can be optionally
cultivated to some gameplay advantage (e.g. Donnie Brasco mob infiltration), yet the
AI-driven NPC buddy requires you to do things that 'funnel' the game experience in a
direction that is in harmony with the game's underlying theme. The game my struggle
to orchestrate contexts into which your NPC will request your involvement, but if you
fail to service this relationship the access you hoped to achieve through their trusted
connections, wealth and opportunity, simply don't arise. Indeed, they may get angry
with you and become an enemy. Either way, your involvement with them leaves your
relationship polarised for good or ill from neutrality: you are entangled thereafter.

Let me apply all this to your article:

The Narrative RPG will become increasingly obsolete for eight reasons:

- Telling a predetermined, often linear, story limits player freedom and creativity

- Increasingly large-scale, open world Sandboxes, make this prohibitively expensive

- An emergent history forged by the actions of the player(s) can be superior (DayZ)

- A open world can include hack 'n slash dungeons with loot, gear and XP from skill

- These dungeons can hold an optional objective deep within them (for relevance)

- Players can revisit dungeons after a interval to find new monsters and treasure

- It is equally legitimate to 'hunt, shoot, fish and loot' as it is to 'rescue the princess'

- Entanglement provides a mechanism to ensure that players stick to a chosen path*

*Hence, you would be penalised for dungeon crawling whilst in the middle of a quest
to rescue the princess, unless the princess was the objective held prisoner by a boss
deep within a specific dungeon, yet a stealthy rescue may preclude extensive looting

I see no practical reason why every kind of adventure game couldn't be combined to
make one ultimate hybrid of genres, in other words a MMORTSFPSRPG with a scope
so broad that it multiple adventures were given coherency by an underlying theme,
rather than just one adventure that was the scripted crystallisation of that theme.

Thom Q
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Nick gets it. You should check some of the interviews with Dean Hall, DayZ's creator. He has a real interesting way of working and looking at things. ShannonZKiller on youtube has an 11 part interview with him a few days ago, might be worth checking out. He goes into development quite deep (as always), and shares some of his insights on the impact of DayZ, as well as his thoughts on the industry.

Brion: Repeating yourself doesn't make it more true. Different mechanics is Not a role. And that's probably where your confusion surrounding Role Playing comes from. You should not use your own opinion on what a word means, that way you'll wind up miss communicating a lot with people.

Role playing is not restricted to video games only. The fact that video games use the word to describe their genre, and in the last 10 years often used it wrongfully, or at least at a bare minimum, does not change the fact that Role Playing, and Role Playing Games are things that exist outside of videogames, and that they already have a pretty clear definition for them. A couple of dozen mislabeled video games won't change this.

Matthew Fioravante
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"I don't know the secret of success, but the secret of failure is certainly trying to please everyone."

Everyone developing games should memorize this quote.

Joshua Darlington
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Nice work.

Narrative is like any other type of entertainment. Execution is everything. When you are mixing styles of entertainment people will notice inconsistent quality. Iffy narrative and killer gameplay is as disappointing as excellent narrative and iffy gameplay. A dungeon crawler with no narrative isnt really an RPG.

Joshua Darlington
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RPGs always include role playing. A mission includes a dramatic set up - which frames the play within a narrative.

You can have minimal narrative mechanics, but IMO that's like decaf coffee. You are missing the key feature of the product.

Joshua Darlington
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Role playing games are called "Role Playing Games" not "Character Progression Games" or "Stat Games."

So far it's been impossible for computer based RPGs to simulate characters or socially mediated narratives based on characterization (roles) at the level humans are able to achieve playing pen and paper RPGs.

The three categories of computer game based RPGs described above are three attempts to deal with the limitations of using computers as a platform for RPGs and to emphasize other aspects that computers can deliver well, such as cinematic style narratives, reasonably simulated 3D worlds and intense real time combat.

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Joshua Darlington
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RPG as computer game was based off of the popularity of role playing games. These games were popular for a reason. New devices that make use of computers as networked communication platforms and esp layered reality present opportunities for tapping into the dynamics that made RPGs popular to begin with.

The reason you feel RPG is a bad name goes back to my original point that dungeon crawlers with no narrative are not RPGs.

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Luke Meeken
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While the video/computer game genre "RPG" obviously shares a name with pen and paper "RPG"s, I don't know if it's accurate to assume that that means both types of games have the same aesthetic goals or need the same mechanical elements.

While computer RPGs focused on one aspect of the tabletop experience - the mechanics - other types of games seem to have emphasized other elements of that experience. Interactive fiction games, for instance, focus more on an immersive second-person narrative space the unfolds through a dialogue with a storyteller/DM (most of my personal tabletop RPG experiences have 'felt' more like IF games than like console RPGs).

But, for whatever reason, games simulating the mechanical aspect of PnP RPGs were christened "RPGs, "while game simulating the narrative style/interactions were not, and developed their own name, "IF." But I don't think that means that one is necessarily more similar or more beholden to the PnP model than the other.

RPG is basically a really problematic term, as in almost any game with characters you are playing some role (I remember first encountering role playing games in late elementary school, and being confused by the term as I had already been playing the role of Mario and MegaMan for years...), and, ironically, a lot of games labelled as RPGs, and which are exemplars of the RPG computer game genre, don't actually emphasize role-playing. I think Jordane's article helps navigate those confusing multiple shades of the term, witohut completing abandoning the term 'RPG,' which might be too confusing, even if it would ultimately probably be appropriate.

Thom Q
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Reading this thread kind of explains it to me. I think it's save to assume that Brion & Luke never actually Role played anything in their adult lives.
And if they think they did, because they tried game X where character B could jump higher, that'll hopefully explain my point.

Joshua Darlington
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All that statistical stuff comes from war games. The innovation that created role playing games out of war games was adding layers of characterization/roles/role play and the game master who essentially directed the group storytelling effort. That's what originally made them popular.

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Joshua Darlington
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>But, for whatever reason, games simulating the mechanical aspect of PnP RPGs were christened "RPGs"

Computer game point systems match war game stats. Adding role playing to war games increased their popularity. Adding various degrees of role playing to computer games increases their popularity, if executed well.

Another reason for "christening" games with no role playing as RPGs might be marketing. Some people selling fantasy fighting games may want to try and fit into the popular fantasy RPG market.

If some one is creating a role playing game and is de-emphasizing dramatic characterization and narrative play aka role playing in favor of stats they are missing an opportunity. Humans are social creatures.

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Joshua Darlington
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"lacking a better name they borrowed the term as well." Your story is essentially distinction without a difference.

"Playing a game with narrative isn't a social activity, it's about the farthest thing from it"

The context is role playing games. They are not costume playing games or figurative archetype playing games. The social narrative interaction is what distinguishes the role playing game engine from the statistical war game engine or IF. Collaborative narrative is their appeal and strength.

Robert Boyd
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I like a highly focused game as much as anyone, but I daresay that many of the best RPGs of all time are the ones that are more balanced. You list Dragon Age as a narrative-driven RPG but the reason I like it is because it has a deep LV-Up system and fun combat with story coming in third. In contrast, Planescape: Torment has a much better story & characters than Dragon Age, but everything else about it is pretty bad and so I didn't find it very entertaining.

If you create a balanced RPG and make sure each piece is done well, then more people will enjoy it. Dragon Age: Origins can be enjoyed by both narrative fans and dungeon crawler fans (and will especially be enjoyed by people who like both styles) but the more narrow Planescape: Torment can only be enjoyed by narrative fans.

Jordane Thiboust
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Dragon Age is from my point of view, as for every Bioware games a Narration driven RPG.

That being said, it is still an RPG, so yes, definitely the character progression and leveling system are and need to be good, they are simply in my opinion not the real focus here.

You can't really grind in Dragon Age, there are no re-spawns, there is a finite amount of experience and even currency that you can acquire. In the end your experience has a beginning and an end which is purely defined by the story.

On the other end, a true dungeon crawler, like Diablo, use the narration as a context, but never has a limitation to your character progression, quite the contrary you can literally "break" the story flow by redoing past level, killing bosses multiple times etc, simply to keep having your character progress.

So yes, it is always important to have a nice Level up system and fun combat, but that does not prevent you from focusing your experience on the narration.

For example, the simple fact that you have dialog with multiple choice and even morale choices to follow show that the narrative evolution of the character in Dragon Age is very important, whereas there is no such thing in a Diablo game.

Robert Boyd
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But with Dragon Age, you could fast-forward through all the dialogue and still have a great time just with the dungeon crawler elements of the game. Similar thing with Mass Effect (and in fact, they added a skip-story mode to the 3rd game).

In games that don't focus on one extreme, the emphasis comes as much from the player as it does the game. You can play something like Dragon Age focusing on the story and you can play it focused on the combat and leveling. Neither approach is wrong or better than the other.

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Zack Wood
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In terms of advice for each of the sub-genres, it seems like one thing you said was the same for all three, just slightly re-worded: "create an interesting, cohesive universe that makes sense on the game's own terms." I think that's good advice for just about any game, and couldn't hurt a game no matter the genre.

I also really liked how you described the "breadcrumb" process of keeping the player interested, leading them from tasty treat to tasty treat.

Lance McKee
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Thank you for the great article! You've pointed out several things that I think will really help me stay on track with my current project.

Bart Stewart
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Agreed: great article. "Have a focus from the start, and don't lose it" is smart advice.

The specific breakdown into story, open-world, and character-progression forms suggested also seems plausible, and not just because those styles cluster pretty neatly into three of the four primary styles of play recognized by various psychologists and game designers:

Progression: Guardian/Achiever/Gamist
Story: Idealist/Socializer/Narrativist
World: Rational/Explorer/Simulationist

(Details of this model are in the Gamasutra article
_styles_a_.php .)

Interestingly, this suggests that there's an opening for someone to make the kind of RPG that's missing here, which is what might be considered the true "action RPG" for the gamers whose primary playstyle is Artisan/Manipulator/Experientialist. Rather than emphasizing a dynamic open world, or an emotionally engaging story, or a progressively more powerful agent, an Action RPG would offer a sequence of increasingly intense sensations. Actually, now that I think about it -- don't today's first-person shooters like Call of Duty come pretty close to qualifying as this fourth sub-species of RPG? If not, what else would they need to be considered RPGs?

The other thing that I'm curious about is what the (relatively) successful hybrid RPGs might teach.

For example, the original Two Worlds was a combination of open-world and progression RPG modes. (Story? Not so much.) It did neither perfectly, but I found the distinctive mixture -- exploring the large world to combine and enhance weapons and armor -- a lot of fun. (The sequel didn't build on this, unfortunately.)

As for mixing the story and progression varieties of RPGs, I think a fair case could be made that the RPGs created and inspired by Looking Glass did that pretty well. The two Ultima Underworld games, for example, were literally dungeon-crawlers, but they were built around revealed narratives as well. (You might also call them open-world games, but that's arguable.)

The same is true for the two System Shock games and the three Deus Ex games. The core experience of all of these games was the combination of unraveling narrative threads by progressively enhancing your protagonist character's abilities. And while most of these weren't commercial blockbusters, Deus Ex: Human Revolution certainly did well. (The three Thief games so far were more specifically Narrative RPGs. It'll be interesting to see whether Eidos dilutes or strengthens the Thief series if they choose to add character progression mechanics not used in the initial trilogy.)

All the Looking Glass-style RPGs may just emphasize the overall point of the article, though: yeah, you can combine sub-forms of RPG... but you'd better know what you're doing.

Chad Wagner
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It's possible that Devil May Cry, and Darksiders would fit in to your Artisan/Manipulator/Experientialist Action RPG.

Since they feature what is essentially a string of fighting games - increasing abilities usually as combos (very player skill connected). This leads to more and more intense battles and sensations.

There is usually narrative flow associated with success, and some leveling up (albeit minor).

Johnathon Swift
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While I agree that there are definitively different, if not types, then flavors of RPG, and one should be aware of what they're making, I frankly, I completely disagree with the sandbox RPG "things you have to put up with". Along with any sort of rigidity in "what type" you're making.

Firstly, Fable 2, a multi million copy selling RPG, can't be classified as any of these things. It's a dungeon heavy RPG with heavy narrative emphasis, restricted movement, yet a free roaming, sandbox like environment, with a morality system, and... basically it's a critically acclaimed, fan beloved bestselling RPG that crosses all 3 of the "types" of RPGs that you've just said shouldn't be crossed.

Meaning that, while I agree that one should keep in mind what core mechanic you're selling on, the "types' just aren't there. Surely Borderlands 2 is more beloved by fans because its character progression system is much deeper than the fan and critic disappointing Diablo 3. But critic, and fan? (too soon to tell) RPG Ni No Kuni is a battle heavy, very much story driven RPG with an incredibly deep character progression system. The system you've set up just doesn't apply.

Further, getting to Sandbox RPG's specifically. Fallout New Vegas, the Fallout made by Obsidian, had a fairly good and in depth story, and was all the better because of it. Kingdom's of Amalur, a fairly freeroaming RPG, had one of the best combat systems of any RPG I, or many critics and fans, have ever played. Bugs can happen in any game, and not happen in any game, no matter how complex or big.

Just because Bethesda is rather rubbish in all these areas, and has been for years, and has no intention of changing doesn't mean these things are what you "need to put up with" in a Sandbox RPG. Just so the game mentioned above don't do things well that Bethesda's games have, yet have still been well received. I also think some of your advice can be applied to more types of genres. Having a narrative driven environment can work just as well in a sandbox RPG.

So there definitely no "hard types" to adhere to, just things you should keep in mind when delivering your experience, just like any game.

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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He does say it's alright to mix as long as you know what you're doing.

It's also worthy to note that yeah, having all of them and in just the right way is awesome, but the more features you want, the more expensive or time-consuming it can be to develop it.

Michael DeFazio
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not to be rude, but I might argue the opposite of the conclusions to this article.

over the last 5-10 years, things have "started to get interesting" as far as blending genres go... One trend (which seems to be gaining momentum) is adding things that were traditionally only seen in Hardcore RPGs (deep narrative, open world, player progression, ...) into other genres of games (shooters, MMO, RTS, Sports, etc.).

Doesn't the implication of stressing one tenet (narrative, progression, open world) end up making many "reskinned" versions of the same game?--- At some point, exactly how many "streamlined" variants of a "Dungeon Crawler" will satisfy the public (Seems to me after Diablo3, Torchlight 2, Grim Dawn, ...I wouldn't necessarily want to tell my team to focus on making a really good streamlined "Dungeon Crawler" considering the options available)

I'd be more excited for the prospect of something "experimental" which might entice people (i.e. Point & Click Adventure with RPG-esque Progression and Turn Based Combat)

"if you always do what you've always done you will always get what you always got" --Henry Ford

Tyler Gedeon
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Splicing two -- traditionally separate -- genres can be incredibly successful -- if done correctly. The point of this article, while applying to RPG's in the traditional sense, is to point out that more often than not, more is less. Creativity and the ability to think outside the box is a must in this industry but re-inventing the wheel, so to speak, can be risky.

Stressing one tenet gives a game a structured focus, but adding pieces from another discipline can go a long way in making your game stand out. For example, Borderlands uses a healthy hybrid of player progression and narrative, and then folds it into an FPS. I use this as an example because I feel that this game successfully blends multiple tenets from RPG's and genres, and perhaps most importantly, they marketed it towards hardcore gamers. But that doesn't mean that it wasn't lacking in many areas.

FPS fans may not have liked it because it didn't play like Halo; RPG fans may have been turned off by the lack of depth and immersion. But they weren't trying to please everyone who played those respective genres; as Jordane said, "I don't know the secret of success, but the secret of failure is certainly trying to please everyone."

While I certainly do not disagree with you, I am an advocate of Jordane's post. Often times when developers add a mix of RPG tenets/genre splicing they can lose their overall focus and attempt to please all players who tend to enjoy them individually. Just because a game has narrative, shooting, and progression doesn't mean a narrative, fps, and progression fan will enjoy them.

Michael DeFazio
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thanks for the response...fair enough. i didn't necessarily want to sidetrack the article (in a hurtful way) especially to those who feel that it applies to their situation (perhaps they are on a project where it is not clear which aspect of the game is the "focus").

also, i am not against streamlined games or games that have focus and simplicity (i.e. Tetris) and i can see the point about the "please everyone" design approach (should be avoided)

...but even as a lover of "old school" RPGs, i wonder how many design decisions are left to "convention" (i.e. we are making a narrative rpg, therefore lots of exposition and in your face narrative through deep dialog trees) rather than figuring out the best way to have the player have experiences...(more simply, instead of assuming the branching narrative is accomplished through dialog trees, how can I get a player to make choices that matter).

i think we would all agree on is communication and having a common vision among the team is paramount, if this article inspires people to effectively communicate a shared vision to achieve project success, i'm all for it.

(I just tend to get confused when people call Dark Souls a "Dungeon Crawler", or Dragon Age a "narrative RPG"... to me this doesn't communicate the core of what either of those games is about and what makes them good/special.)


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Bruce Crankshaw
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Excellent and informative article. I like the way you have articulated accurately, IMO, the different RPG genres.

I only disagree with one major point you made, you mention "And as the trend grows, we can safely expect that in a couple years (if that's not the case already) every RPG will be an action RPG, making the label basically useless."

With initiatives like Kickstarter we see fan funding so you will continue to see specific RPG created for a target audience. Like Project Eternity or Wasteland 2

Harlan Sumgui
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best quote of the article "I don't know the secret of success, but the secret of failure is certainly trying to please everyone."

Arthur De Martino
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I'm currently doing a Narrative RPG in which I removed exploration aspects to emphasize character interaction. The flow of the narrative is left to player choice of what character will he interact and what conversation options he choose. The player is limited of how many actions (Interactions with NPCs) he can do before the main plot picks up and he loses his chance, forcing the player to select NPCs of his choices over others.
Character custominization comes in the form of "Concepts" the player collect from said interactions and they unlock different stats and powers for the player.
I'm using the standard drangon-quest like combat system...Though I'm not satisfied with it yet.
What combat systems would mold on this particular type of Narrative game? Any specific mechanics would you sugest?

Joshua Darlington
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Arthur De Martino
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What I meant was "Almost a direct clone" from Dragon Quest, I just removed item usage and levels, since the power of your character party is static as well the enemies you bump in specific pockets of the game (Right after the "NPC conversation phase" is over actually).
I'm trying to come up with a spin. All I got so far is that each character belongs in a class, and all classes are equal save one particular mechanic: They can use buffs in mid battle to up a specific stat, or in the case of the Strategist, their equivalent of "MP". I guess I need to study some more turn based games to truly make one unique.
Thank you for the sugestion! I wonder if I can mesh that system well with some ideas I got for combat...

Douglas Scheinberg
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Honestly? It sounds like you're re-inventing the Sakura Wars series. Sakura Wars is a JRPG series, only one of which was ever released in English. The gameplay is divided into "visual novel" segments, which can be described like this:

"The flow of the narrative is left to player choice of what character will he interact and what conversation options he choose. The player is limited of how many actions (Interactions with NPCs) he can do before the main plot picks up and he loses his chance, forcing the player to select NPCs of his choices over others."

The other half of the game consists of Final Fantasy Tactics-like battle sequences, in which your characters' battle stats are determined by the state of the relationships between the characters (as determined by your actions in the visual novel segments).

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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>only one of which was ever released in English

I guess you can't blame him for not knowing about it then.

James Castile
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For me an RPG is a game which gives you a choice in how your character participates in the narrative. Not EVERY bit of the plot has to have a choice after all that's impossible. For instance, to me Bioshock is an RPG. You choose to rescue or harvest the little sisters. Granted it's not a very deep RPG since you really only have that once choice, but that is a role that you choose to play in order to further your game experience. Skyrim has side missions where you have a choice in how to proceed and THAT'S what makes it an RPG as opposed to a straight fantasy game. Of course, Mass Effect is the undisputed king of choice and I would love to see more games take this approach to storytelling.

Axel Cholewa
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Very nice article!

Only one thing: you use the term "immersion" as in "immersed in the game world", but that's not the actual meaning. You can be deeply immersed in Demons' Souls without caring for story, characters or the fate of the game world. You can be totally immersed into God Of War, or a Mario game, or Need For Speed. I guess nearly everybody who ever played Tetris was totally immersed into the game at some point.

Every game, no matter its genre, should always have immersion as one its goals.

Jeremie Sinic
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This is a brilliant article. I especially liked the part about "Action RPGs".

David Bray
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This is a well researched and interesting article however I think that you have missed the point a little here. You brilliantly identify several sub generes of RPG ans the things that work and don't work for them and then you go and list this information as your game must have this and must do this and must not do this. Following the guidelines in this article all RPGs moving forward would be pretty much the same with little to no innovation beacause you know we can't do that in a narrative RPG.

I would much rather have seen this presented as metrics, like X% of games did this and it worked and Y% mixed this with that and it didn't work. But Z% mixed this with this and it was brilliant. Analysing these sort of metrics would then allow you to hypothesize as to why and then potentially find even more ways to mix the genres.

Contrary to what you believe I think that mixing various RPG tropes together in different ways is the future of RPGs and as many commentors have said we are already seeing this on a large scale.