Two more songs to share with you all!
And if you missed the songs we shared earlier this week, you can find all of them here.
Two more songs to share with you all!
And if you missed the songs we shared earlier this week, you can find all of them here.
In my mind, an RPG leveling system should have four major goals.
Gives the player freedom to customize their strategies by developing their characters’ abilities.
Reinforces the personality of each character.
Rewards and surprises the player.
Adds long-term strategy.
Unfortunately, these goals often serve at cross-purposes. For example, if you make a game where each character’s progression is strictly predetermined, it’s easy to reinforce their personalities and to reward and surprise the player but you lose out on long-term strategy & the freedom to customize your strategy. Conversely, a system where each character is a blank slate and LV-Ups are clearly seen in advance is great for customization & long-term strategy but can be weak in personality reinforcement and surprising the player (you can run into situations where the player fully plans out their progression before they play and then gets bored while playing because they already know what’s going to happen next).
What are some of your favorite examples of RPG leveling systems?
For fun, I decided to go back and count up how many maps are in our previous RPGs. Note, these map counts are based on the current version of each game so they include any additions we made after launch. They also don’t include slightly modified versions of existing maps & cutscene-only maps.
BoDVII = 54 maps.
Cthulhu Saves the World = 101 maps.
Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 = 40 maps.
Breath of Death VII’s map count seems unusually high for how short a game it is (you can beat it in around 4 hours) but keep in mind that these map counts don’t necessarily reflect the size of the individual maps. Breath of Death in particular had several smaller maps (like tiny rooms with staircases) that artificially inflate the map count.
Cthulhu Saves the World was our first epic RPG and it shows. It has a drastically higher map count than Breath of Death VII and the maps in Cthulhu Saves the World tend to be noticeably larger on average as well. However, I think we probably took things a little too far. Especially in the second half of the game, the dungeon can get to be too repetitive and too complicated. In particular, the bridge system means that some of the dungeons can get really windy & unintuitive. They’re nowhere near as bad as some actual 16-bit RPGs that I can think of (Phantasy Star II being the most egregious example), but they don’t really fit our otherwise fast-paced approach to RPG design. Later on in the game’s development, we added some candle sprites to some of the dungeons as hints (go this way!) but even so, we would do things differently if we were to make the game now.
In Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3, I think we veered too much in the opposite direction. The game’s design originally called for maps similar to the game’s world map (path-based) but we decided to change the design and open things up before launch. Since monsters could be seen before you fought them and did not regenerate, that also made the maps much easier to navigate as well (since if you saw a monster group, that meant you hadn’t explored that area yet) and you didn’t have to worry about random encounters when backtracking. Instead of complaining that they were getting lost in our dungeons, players began to complain that there weren’t enough opportunities to explore. Monster groups also were sometimes placed too closely to each other with the result that the pacing feeling a little bit staccatto. Despite the smaller map count, the individual maps tended to be bigger, combat tended to require more thought, and there was generally more dialogue than in our previous games, so if anything the actual playtime in Precipice of Darkness 3 was longer than that of Cthulhu Saves the World.
With Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 4, I think we’ve finally figured things out. Locations tend to be larger than they were in the previous game, but nowhere near as confusing as some of the dungeons are in Cthulhu Saves the World. There are some nice secrets and alternate paths scattered here and there as well as a few completely optional areas to explore. The overall visual quality of the maps is much higher than our previous games (as you can see by looking at some of the screenshots we’ve released so far here) and there’s much more variety in visual style from location to location. Not only that, but we’ve tried to put more variety within single locations so that the later maps in a dungeon don’t look exactly like the earlier maps. We’ve spread the battles out a little more as well which should help with the game’s pacing and feel. I don’t know how many maps the final game will have since we’re still not quite done, but we’ve got about 70 maps in already with a few more left to go so the game should be quite beefy.
We’re pleased with how the maps are turning out in Precipice of Darkness 4, but we’re not going to stop there. For our next game (CSH), we’re planning on adding more interactive elements to maps, more neat set-pieces, and maybe a few fun puzzles as well. And we’re constantly on the lookout for new ideas and ways to improve.
So I’ve started doing a more in-depth study of particles for use in future games of ours. Particles of the 2D video game variety are basically sprites with an expiration date and can be used for a number of special effects & animations. The really funny thing is that now that I’m studying about them, I’m seeing them ALL over the place when I play other games.
Some of the things you could use particles to do include:
Fire & smoke effects.
Rain & snow.
Icons popping up over people’s heads. Like the exclamation marks in the Metal Gear Solid series or the tear-drops that appear in so many anime-esque RPGs.
Footprints in the sand or snow.
Bullet casings falling from a gun.
Visual trails (like the duplicate sprite effect you see with the main character in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night).
As you can see particles can be used for all sorts of things. I look forward to discovering and implementing all sorts of cool effects with them in the future.
The flow in your typical RPG consists of Town-Dungeon-Town-Dungeon and so on until the game is completed, with some story scenes scattered here and there (usually in towns & at the ends of dungeons). The exact ratio of dungeons to towns to story varies from game to game, but this general formula is used in the vast majority of RPGs out there. Of course, predictability can become boring so a few RPGs have tried to spice things up.
One method that a few RPG series have used to make things more interesting is to include an entirely different gameplay system and then periodically switch between the alternate form of gameplay and the traditional RPG formula. For example, Persona 3 & 4 intersperse the traditional RPG gameplay with a light life sim game. The Atelier & Mana Khemia series add an intricate alchemy/item creation system that the player must use frequently to progress in the story. And the Suikoden series includes the occasional large-scale army battle and one-on-one duel to mix things up in addition to the more traditional RPG party-based combat & exploration.
By including multiple forms of gameplay, it’s much easier to hold the player’s attention since when they might start to get bored with one form of gameplay, another type of gameplay quickly appears. On the downside, this kind of setup is much harder for developers since they need to work on multiple systems and can’t just focus on one.
Another method to add variety is to just simply work on making each individual scenario more unique. Final Fantasy VI is perhaps one of the greatest examples of this approach. In addition to the more traditional dungeons, the game also featured more unique situations like the Opera House, the river raft escape, fighting off hordes of enemies to defend Terra, the Magitek armor sequences, and more. Throw in a large cast of playable characters that frequently join and leave the party and the game felt quite varied despite the fact that the core gameplay (LVing up and fighting turn-based battles) remained largely the same.
Of course, there’s nothing that says that your RPG has to be varied at all. In the hack & slash RPG subgenre, there’s usually very little variety in what you’re doing – you fight monsters, XP & treasure pop out, you get more powerful and then you fight more monsters. There’s something to be said for games with a laser-focus on one thing (fight & gain power) as long as they do that one thing well.
I’ve been thinking about how we can increase variety in our RPGs and the idea of treating an RPG almost like a TV series came to my mind. For example, break the game up into 20-40 minute “episodes” and then decide what each episode’s focus should be. For example, one episode might be a traditional RPG dungeon whereas another episode might be focused more on story & letting the player make decisions. One episode might be focused on a character’s backstory (complete with playable flashback sequence), while another episode might focus on letting the player explore. These wouldn’t have to be actual hardset episodes in game but rather they would be a useful way to help us focus on making the design varied and interesting instead of just falling back on traditional RPG design techniques.
Here is an interesting article on one developer’s decision to go with freemium. Now I think his analysis had some major flaws but he did bring up some interesting points.
“When you make a game that earns 1+ year’s salary, it feels like you’ve made it. 90+% of devs would be delighted to be in this position. For the moment, let’s assume you’ve made it. For what it is worth, I’ve been there twice. Having succeeded, many devs assume that they are inherently talented and can repeat that success with only a small amount of additional work. In reality, the number of ‘developer successes’ that have created multiple highly profitable games is surprisingly low. Go through your list of ‘indie successes’ and ask how many have created more than one hit game. More than two? Your list is likely dramatically smaller.”
Given that the current indie resurgence pretty much started in 2008 with games like Braid, Castle Crashers, and World of Goo, I think it’s a little too early to write these developers off as 1-hit wonders just yet. After their initial success, each of these developers spent some time porting their success to additional platforms and is now (to my knowledge) spending a significant amount of time making their next game. And hey, I can’t blame them – if I had a game that made millions of dollars, it would be very tempting to spend 3-4 years getting the next game just right.
“Success leads to scale which leads to risk aversion and fragility in the face of volatility
There’s a specific revenue graph that you see for a typical packaged or downloadable game. You get a big spike of money that slowly trickles down to almost nothing. These are hit games in a hit driven industry with hit shaped revenues. This has some fun psychological implications. When the money is good, it seems like it will never end. As a result, teams tend to overextend themselves. They hire on additional people, and they take on more ambitious and exciting projects. They invest in all the heavy lifting associated with moving their hit to other platforms and new audiences.”
And here’s the part where he’s dead on. As soon as you’re successful, it’s very tempting to want to expand and become even more successful. It’s easy to think “Hey, if we were this successful with a tiny budget, if we increase the budget by 300%, we’ll increase our sales by 1000%!” And it’s not just the desire for more wealth that is an issue. Your typical indie game developers wants to make the best games. Chances are their “dream” game requires a much larger budget than they have access to when they’re starting out. So if their dream game would cost $5 million dollars to make and they end up getting millions of dollars from one of their cheap games, the natural inclination is to expand and finally tackle that dream project. We can definitely see an example of this with Jonathan Blow’s The Witness – he’s even gone on record saying that he’s pretty much spending everything he made on Braid on the development of The Witness. That’s taking a huge chance – the game could succeed wonderfully but if it fails, then he’s practically back to square one.
Now the writer of this article seems to think that this desire for more and more growth is a sign that the traditional practice of charging people a flat fee for a video game upfront is flawed and that it’s safer to make freemium games instead and that’s where I think he’s wrong. The big problem isn’t with selling your game upfront; the problem is with rapidly expanding development costs. If you have a big game success and one of your games makes $5 million dollars, don’t rush out and hire 100 people to work on your magnum opus that’s going to take 5 years to make. Instead, be happy that you now have job security. Stay small or if you want to expand and make more ambitious games, grow SLOWLY. As an additional benefit to this strategy, it’s much easier to find individuals that are perfect for your company when you’re hiring one or two people a year than it is when you’re hiring dozens or hundreds of people over a short period of time. Also, game development that involves 50+ people requires very different skills than game development that involves 1-5 people and so growing slowly lets you grow into your role as well.
What I find especially funny about the whole article is that the writer briefly mentions what I think is the correct path to success as an indie developer and then fails to discuss it:
“Spiderweb stayed small and served the same community for years”
If you’re not familiar with Spiderweb Software, here’s a quick introduction – they’re one of the oldest indie developers around with games like Exile coming out way back in 1995. And the secret to their success is that they stayed small and picked a niche – hardcore old-school PC RPGs that give the player a lot of options – and they stuck with it. Their games don’t sell millions but they have a dedicated fanbase that they can count on to buy a new game once a year or so and since their team and expenses are low, they don’t need huge successes to stay afloat. They can sell 15,000 copies at $10 (or 5,000 copies at $30) and consider it a win. That’s the way to do it. Find a niche that is ill-served by the big AAA companies and serve the fans of that genre. That’s what we’re trying to do for fans of turn-based Japanese style RPGs and as long as we can resist the urge to create 50 hour 3D cel-shaded extravaganzas filled with high quality full motion animated cutscenes, I think we’ll be around for many years to come.
Indie game development success can be very much a feast or famine situation. As soon as you make a game that is a big financial success, don’t get cocky. Save as much of that extra money as you can so that you don’t run out of money while trying to create your next success. And hey, one day you might even get so successful that you don’t have to worry about money at all (as long as you keep your expenses low) and could spend the rest of your days making and releasing games that are actually free (not to be confused with fake free, aka freemium) just for the fun of it because hey, you’ve got millions of dollars just sitting in your bank account.
The traditional form of random battles can be found in many 8-bit & 16-bit RPGs; you’re walking along in an empty map and then all of a sudden, you switch to a separate battle screen that is full of enemies. A lot of people hate these kinds of random battles. However, despite their bad reputation, random encounters aren’t all bad. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons to random encounters.
Gives the player more opportunities to fight.
Makes boss encounters more unique by contrast.
Adds a level of unpredictability.
Can provide a resource management aspect to gameplay (try to save as much of your MP and items as possible for the boss).
Relatively easy to design & program.
Allows the player to grind XP/gold if they want.
Can become tedious busywork.
Can hurt the game’s flow.
Can break immersion.
Harder to balance.
In Breath of Death VII & Cthulhu Saves the World, here’s how we did our random encounters.
First, I’d decide about how many battles I wanted the player to fight in each dungeon. Then, I would activate a special debug mode in the game that would count the number of steps I take. With this mode counting my steps, I’d go through each dungeon twice. In the first trip, I’d make a beeline for the exit. In the second trip, I’d be very thorough and make some wrong turns & pick up every treasure chest. I’d jot down the step values for each style of going through the dungeon and determine an average between them. I would then use this average, along with the # of battles I want the player to fight to determine an average steps/battle ratio. Finally, I’d add a bit of randomization to the steps/battle ratio (so instead of walking 100 steps and always getting a battle on the 100th step, you might walk 50-150 steps before getting a battle) and put that in the actual game.
The actual battle compositions in our games weren’t entirely random. The game wouldn’t just randomly select a bunch of enemies from that dungeon and throw them at you. Rather, I’d design several enemy parties and the game would randomly pick one of those parties. Some of those enemy parties would have further randomization in enemy quantities – for example, one enemy party might be 2-3 of one enemy and 1-2 of an another so your actual result could be anywhere from 3-5 enemies. Finally, I had a couple of methods to make the dungeon feel like it was getting harder the further you went in. One method would be simply to assign different enemy parties to different maps, so for example, the first map of a dungeon would have easier sets of enemies than the final map of that dungeon. The other method would be to track how many battles in that dungeon the player has fought so far and then after a certain number is reached, switch to a harder set of possible enemy parties.
Then I would use all this information to determine how much XP & gold to give each monster type in order to have the player be at roughly the level of power I want them to be at for each part of the game. Finally, I’d decide upon a number of battles necessary to entirely clear out the dungeon of enemies. This small but significant addition to the traditional random battle formula (i.e. an ending in sight) did a lot to alleviate many player’s complaints about random encounters (although it’s also not without its own weakness).
Will we use the traditional form of random encounters again in a future game? Probably not, unless we’re specifically trying to do another 8-bit style game. In Rain-Slick 3 & 4, we use preset battles at set locations of the map. After that, we’ll probably switch to a system where monsters roam the maps and can be seen (and potentially avoided) in advance. Still, despite their old-school nature, I have a certain amount of fondness for well done random encounters and believe more interesting things could be done with them than has been done in the past. For example, why not have include some potential random encounters that have nothing to do with combat and instead add story or flesh out characters?
The latest episode of PATV is all about the development of our upcoming game, Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3. Check it out here.
So You Want to Be an Indie Game Developer?
First off, enjoying the playing videogames is not the same as making them. Seems pretty obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people assume that just because they like to play videogames, they’d also enjoy making them. If anything, deciding to make videogames will actually cut into your time playing them, at least until you’ve made it big and have enough money to turn game development into your full-time career.
Making games is not about the sudden burst of inspiration and brilliant ideas. Oh, don’t get me wrong – you’ll get those too (and if you don’t, game development might not be for you), but they account for a relatively small percentage of your game development time. The vast majority of your time will be spent slowly constructing the game, whether that’s by writing line after line of code, drawing sprite after sprite, composing song after song, or any of the other tasks that needs to be performed to have an actual game. While having a completed game is rewarding and fun, the process itself also involves a lot of tedium and frustration along the way.
Start small and work your way up. When you’re just starting off, you’re not good enough to make your dream game. For that matter, you might not be good enough to make a game that someone will be willing to buy. Doesn’t matter. The time you spend now making Text Adventure Game Extreme! or The New Adventures of Bootleg Pac-Man is time that you’ll be learning your craft so that you can make your dream games eventually. It is also crucial to see a project through to completion – even with a simpler game, the experience you gain from finishing a project teaches invaluable lessons on how to proceed with more ambitious games.
You’re probably not going to make much if any money at first. Don’t let it discourage you. When you see a successful indie developer, chances are they made several games before they had their big hit. The successful indie developers are the ones who don’t stop when they hit a setback.
Learn from your mistakes. When you release a game and it doesn’t do as well as you expected, figure out why. Maybe the gameplay was good but the amateurish graphics scared people off. Maybe it was too similar to another game. Maybe you released it on the wrong platform. Maybe the price was wrong. Figure out what you did wrong and how you can improve in that area so that you don’t make the same mistake next time.
Before you make a game, plan out the game’s scope. Individual features will often change as you come up with new ideas or discover that old ideas don’t work out as well as you thought, but if you have an idea of the general scope of your game, you can avoid it turning into a project that’s beyond your time and abilities. Perhaps the number one killer of indie game projects is feature creep.
Don’t do it alone. A few people are multi-talented geniuses and can make a fantastic game all by themselves. Most of us are not. Once you have some small confidence in your talents, find someone or a group that can compliment your strengths and make up for your weaknesses. Share ideas, insight, and progress – this will help keep everyone motivated. Motivation and momentum are absolutely crucial.
Make games that people will want to buy. It’s not enough to just make good games. Your games need to be different enough from what else is out there that people will want to buy your games instead of the alternative. Remember, you’re not just competing against other indie games, you’re competing against big blockbuster games, older classics, and in short, everything out there. You need a unique hook, in gameplay, concept, execution, or whatever – if you don’t, then why go for your game over someone else’s?
Seek feedback especially before but also after release. Don’t become defensive when someone offers criticism. Analyze the complaint and see if it’s valid. If several people have the same complaint, it’s probably valid.
Spread the word. You can have the best and most original game in the world but if no one knows about it, it won’t sell. Create a list with media contacts to send news and free copies of your game to. Become an active user on various forums or where people who might like your game gather. Create a website, a twitter, a facebook, and other forms of social media for your company.
Be nice. If you’re nice, people will help you to succeed. If you’re nice and your games are good, people will buy your games. If you’re not nice, they’ll just pirate them.
Start now. You’re never too young or too old to begin game development. The sooner you begin, the sooner you’ll gain the skills necessary for you to eventually make the best game ever!
Once we’re done with our current projects and have some money saved up, I’d love to take a few years, maybe hire an extra person or two, and make something truly amazing – an RPG that could stand toe to toe with the classics of the past.
Now I have a pretty good idea of what I’d like in a JRPG, but I was curious to see what others thought on the matter and so I posted the following question on my twitter account: “JRPG fans – what would your ultimate JRPG be like?” I got dozens of responses – many from individuals who work in the video game industry – and the results were interesting.
Below, I present to you the 5 most common elements I saw, in roughly their order of popularity.
1. Control of a Well Written Plot – This was by far the most common element I saw in the responses. Fans want a strong, well thought out plot, but they also want to have some say over what happens.
2. Turn-based battle system – There was a lot of variety in exactly what kind of battle system they wanted (the Grandia, Shin Megami Tensei, and Final Fantasy series were all brought up many times) but one thing was clear – many fans miss the days when turn-based combat was the norm and not the exception.
3. Complex, intricate LV-Up system – Job systems and skill systems were especially popular.
4. Exploration – Players wanted huge worlds with the freedom to explore. No wonder Xenoblade and popular Western sandbox RPGs like Fallout and Skyrim review so well!
5. More adult plots – Fans that grow up on JRPGs in the 80s, 90s, and beyond are now adults and want to be treated as such.
So taking this feedback and my opinions into consideration, here’s a rough premise I came up with.
World is a mix of fantasy & science fiction. Main city in the world is a dystopia ala Midgar that wouldn’t look out of place in Shadowrun. Outside the city, there’s a dangerous wilderness that’s mostly unknown to the civilized world. Main player is a computer that gained sentience and corporeal form (can choose to be either male or female). Main plot has various branches – do you side with those who would use your powers? Go on a quest of self discovery? Seek the quiet life that no one will let you have? There will also be various optional major plot lines ala the Elder Scrolls series guild quests.
Party composition and party member relationships would have an effect on dialogue, plot, available dungeons, etc. None of this “Chie has pledged her undying love to you but her dialogue and actions are still exactly the same in all major plot scenes” nonsense.
Combat will be turn-based and probably loosely based on the Grandia series. LV-Up system would be kind of like the Materia from FF7 except each character has one exclusive Materia that can not be unequipped and individual Materia can be customized ala the Sphere Grid from FF10.
Lots of exploration possibilities. To keep difficulty in control without removing the player’s feeling of progression, each area will have a possible LV range however the LV choosen will be based on things like the player’s progression when they first go to that area. For example, an early area might have a LV range of 1-10 so if you go there right at the beginning, enemies will be permanently locked into LV1 and would stay that way for the entire game. However if you didn’t go there until the end of the game, the enemies would be locked at LV10 (even if you’re say LV50 – still want to make the early area feel like an early area). Conversely, a late game area might have a LV range of 50-60 so if you went there early, it’d get locked into LV50 which might still be way more than you could handle.
2D pixel art and an awesome soundtrack. ’cause that’s just how we do things here.
And now for a quick Q&A:
Will this actually be made? Beats me. Keep in mind that we’re not going to be starting any new projects for a while (gotta finish what we’ve already begun first!) and I scrap ideas almost as quickly as I come up with them so there’s no guarantee this idea will ever turn into anything.
Why do you keep mentioning other games? Don’t you want to be original? This isn’t even at a design document state. Mentioning other games is a quick and easy way to give everyone a general idea. Once a game is further along, that’s when you can start talking details and how to make it more unique.
Aren’t you afraid someone else will steal your ideas? Not particularly. They’re just ideas. Taking these ideas and turning them into an actual high quality game would take a talented team years of work .Plus these ideas are just a starting point – if you gave these ideas to two talented designers and teams, you’d end up with two drastically different games in the end.