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Putting the 'Play' back in Gameplay

by Cube

Well, I've been using the OHR for many years. Since August 1999 to be exact. Since my first OHR game I've been implementing weird crazy systems you've either seen in other RPGs or ones I've personally designed. At first, I was doing it just because I had mostly played Square RPGs, and what I noticed in their games is that they always had some new system for me to mess around with. I thought it was a standard for RPGs and I wanted to do that too. But over the years I've come to realise I was a fan of the new systems and wanted to design my own. As I kept making games and trying to simulate others, I began to get my own original ideas for gameplay systems. Not only that, but because of my experience designing these things I actually became good at it. Designing these gameplay systems and using plotscripting to make them has become something I love doing, and because of that I'm here to tell you what I've learned over the last 4 to 5 years.

First, let me tell you about my games and how they each led me to where I am today. Heh, don't worry. I don't want to turn this into a biography, I just think it may help me explain some of my details I'll bring up later. I want you to keep in mind that I don't think this is the best and correct way of going about designing gameplay. In fact, I'm sure there are some things that could be taken up a little further. But like the rest of you, I'm still learning. And these are my experiences...

Okay childen, pay attention! There's going to be a history test this Friday.

My first game, Dimensions. No, not that remake you see with the Statistic Table. This is one you've probably never seen, and never will. Dimensions was based on these pen and paper games I was making back in 7th grade. They weren't like dungeons and dragons, it was more like a world map designed in a maze like way with items that my "players" could obtain. I'd always have to be present because I knew the rules and limitations, but people had fun. They didn't have a story or much depth, but were a good distraction from boring classes, heheh. Anyhow, my first game tried to simulate this. Plotscripting wasn't present and even if it was I probably wouldn't have used it. I had to make due with what I had. The end result was an item scavenger game with a FFVII fan story slipped into it somewhere. It was too hard and didn't make much sense. I finished it within a month and could never beat it myself, but I was content with it. In the end, it was nothing special.

~ Sometimes, non-linear games can be fun. But make some kind of a goal, and never make up stuff as you go along.

Next, it was September. Well what do you know, Final Fantasy VIII comes out. Good gosh, this game doesn't have MP and has consumable magic in it's place! Lo and behold, I start Dimensions II. What do you think happened? I made consumable magic through the use of items. At this point I got some new ideas though. Since I had MP available I could try to simulate the limit breaks of Final Fantasy VII. Also, I decided the game would only follow one character and have "Pets" that assist you like Pokemon or the GFs in Final Fantasy VIII. After developing the game futher, I realised I could do something nifty with the consumable magic items. They could be equipped to increases stats. Thinking about this a little futher, I made it so that certain magics would increase certain stats. For example, I always pictured fire symbolic for power, so it increases physical strength. From this, my little trait of "Equipable Magic" in my games started. It worked good and was something people in the OHR never did because they always taught their spells through level ups.

Anyhow, D2 progressed over a number of months until after Christmas later that year. You know what I got for christmas? Final Fantasy Anthology! What games were in it? FF5 and 6! FF5 however, has a larger impact on me. It has a job system, which allowed characters to be anything you wanted them to be, but at the same time couldn't be everything at once. "Interesting concept, " I thought, "but too bad I can't put it in an OHR game. Oh but wait! Didn't that 'plotscripting' thing come out last month?" From what I knew, it could be used to do all kinds of nifty things and I had been adding weird additions to D2 in order to get an understanding of it. 5 days later I started on Dimensions III which had a job system in it. It was crude but it worked. D2 took a back seat and was never really worked on again. D2 helped me a lot though, by making me begin to actually think about what I was doing.

~ Find ways of adding onto already made gameplay systems. Improve upon them. Look at things differently and try to see the true thought put into gameplay.

D3 was my hit and miss game. Some people loved it and others thought it was pure crap. If you look at it's graphics and story, yeah it's crap. A lot of people ignored all that and loved it solely for it's job system. Anyhow, this game helped me improve my plotscripting skills. I took a bit of what I learned from D2 and put it into D3. D3 had more solid gameplay and an actual story. Over time I made interesting additions to the job system, like how the Normal Job stats effected all the other job stats giving you a reason to constantly level different jobs (At first, the Normal job was there just because that's what you started in. Once you changed to something else there wasn't a reason to go back). D3 helped me discover to not put anything useless in a game (Even though I didn't start to truely follow this rule right away), improved my plotscripting skills immensely, made me a better writer, a better map designer, and well... Heck, I got better at everything. That's why D3 is one of my favorite OHR games that I made, even though it sucks. D3 was actually finished, although not everything I wanted to be in the game was added.

~ Expand further on the idea of adding onto already made gameplay systems. Discover the other parts of game design, and find ways to link them together to create a consistancy throughout the game.

D4 was began sometime during D3 however. It was during the summer, in August of 2000. Final Fantasy IX was coming out soon and from what I read, it made use of old school gameplay systems. This got me thinking a bit. If Square is releasing a game with old school gameplay (Which is something they weren't doing much lately), then why shouldn't I? I know, I was quite the copy cat ~sigh~. D4 didn't have any fancy systems. You learned magic from items. The Magic Equip system returned in D4. Weapons gave you attacks you could use in battle (Since FFIX did, but I couldn't simulate this perfectly). In the end, the gameplay was rather simplistic like an old school RPG. Suprisingly, I got more praise for my gameplay designs in D4 than I did for D3. This taught me something too. New systems aren't always the best thing to use. D4 however, never got off the ground much because the size of the game I had planned was a looooong road and was kinda depressing (To this day I think D4 has a great story, but it's just too hard to pull off in the OHR).

~ Make sure what you design for the game is what you really want. If you do it just because you can, you'll find that you'll have trouble using it later on in the game and it'll eventually lose it's purpose. Create new systems because you think it'll be fun, not because it's never been done.

So, here's the skills I got so far after all this. I knew what companies were putting into commercial games and I knew how to adapt them for my own uses. I learned how to designed my own designs based on those adaptations. I learned that putting useless stuff in a game is stupid. I learned that new systems weren't always the best thing.

With this knowledge in hand, I decided to try something new. My Dimension games were all Final Fantasy rip offs. So in order to try something new, I felt I would have to start a game with a new title. This is where "The Relics of Ladon" came from, which was either released in 2001. At first glace it may seem like my other games, but that's because it was made by me. The things that are different in it is that you don't gain any form of experience points to increase stats, and on top of that, battles aren't random (Like Chrono Trigger!). Magic can once again be equipped of course, but it can only be bought from shops if you have the right "level" items (Level 1 items can buy Fire, Ice and Bolt while Level 3 can buy Fire3, Ice3 and Bolt3). The stats of a character increased after battle, and which one was completely random. The amount that it went up by was based on a growth rate stat, which would be increased after boss fights and from equipable items.

It was an interesting system, to say the least. I don't think many played the game, either. However, from the few things I heard from others, I learned even more when it came to gameplay design. One, people don't really like random stuff. The fact that random stats went up prevented them from progressing in the game, since they might get increases for every stat except HP. Another is that people don't seem to like small numbers. The limits I planned on putting in Ladon were 999 for HP, 99 for MP, and so on. So when you got increments for stats, and it technically did a lot, it sure didn't feel like it. People lost interest in the game early on.

~ Implement limits only if it enchances gameplay. Gameplay should be flexible enough so the player doesn't feel restricted, but shouldn't allow the player to overpower the opposition.

After releasing Ladon and getting feedback, I didn't really work on it much more. It's not that I got depressed about it, I just decided I couldn't improve that kind of gameplay (I would have to make a whole new game). I took a nice long break. I spent the summer of 2001 thinking up gameplay and just playing games themselves. I came up with a system called the Table. It was just something I thought would be fun, but didn't use it. Later in the fall, a friend of mine in real life came to me and somehow we decided we wanted to make a game together. He was the story writer, and he's a good one at that. If any of you have ever watched the anime movie Princess Mononoke, he wanted the setting of the game to be like that. After hearing his story and his ideas, I decided that the Table system would make a really good addition to his game. I scripted the whole thing in a night, and he called the game Gun Frontier. I designed a world map for it too. However, the game never progressed more than that. He was too busy with school I suppose. Anyhow, I had a gameplay system I really liked and was already scripted, and I had been wanting to redesign D1 since it didn't really fit into the other 3 (The D series are actually story connected, but in a indirect way). I also liked the character design I did for Castor, who become Gallahan in D1. The entire story for D1 is different from Gun Frontier, but a lot of elements remain.

Anyhow, I started D1. This is probably my most successful one out of all my games because of a number of things. I had a lot of experience under my belt, and instead of coming up with a story and placing gameplay in it, I came up with gameplay and put in a story. I didn't show the links between gameplay and story in the D1 demo since that was for later, but it was basicly that the Shards you use were the life forces of the creatures of the planet, and the table was a representation of the many pathes you can take. No pathes are choosen for you, making it possible for you to basicly go against fate if you tried hard enough (As the characters DID have predetermined roles, but it was very hard to break from them). It was a theme that was to take place throughout the game, but I never managed to make much more of D1. There may or may not be an update, I'm not sure at this point.

~ Try to link everything in the game together. And hey, philosophical stuff can be fun!

But you see, because of what I learned from professional companies in the past from simulating what they made, I was able to make something original of my own. I didn't have anything truely useless in the game (Some items you found were meant to be used later on), and since I knew that new systems weren't always the best choice I left some old school in there as well (Like I said earlier, each character has their own skills and capabilities. It's just REALLY hard to break from them. Even I haven't done that, heh). I also made use of larger numbers. Right off the bat you do 150-200 damage. I don't know about you, but I really hated those OHR games that had you do 9 or so damage. It felt like you did nothing to the enemies. I also tried to give it a bit of challenge, but D1 was more "easy" than "hard". I didn't plan on keeping it this way of course. It's the beginning of the game, nobody wants to die and have a hard time. I also once again, have the equipable magic thing happening, and like in D4 the weapons you equip give you special abilities. Austin was more of a supportive battle character while Flogen was the "warrior". I tried something new by giving characters intelligence which would determine how effective the items they used were.

~ Don't just let anyone have potential to become a semi-god. This is were you place limits to enchance gameplay.

Overall, everyone who played the game enjoyed it for these reasons, even though some of them were just simple, small details. Which is my goal of course, to make the game fun.

So, did I bore you or did you find those hints about how to make good gameplay? Well, if you still don't get it I'm going to explain them even more. Here we go.

It's sensational!

I've noticed recently that a lot of people tell new people to the community that copying ideas from professional companies for their games is bad. But I think that trying to simulate a game you love so much is a good way to find out WHY you liked it and WHAT it did right (Or wrong). When you do these things you also discover the thought put into the systems and designs. Not only for gameplay, but for everything designed for the game down to the smallest details, and you'll find inspiration in that.

Think of it like someone learning how to do graphics or art. They don't just start drawing. Most people look at what others do, like how to draw the shapes of bodies and see how to do small special effects like shading and little details. Gameplay can be seen the exact same way. Just make sure you move onto your own designs eventually, that's all.

When you discover what makes good gameplay and bad gameplay from studying other games, creating new systems will become a lot easier. I highly recommend you just sit down and think of crazy ways to mess around with numbers. Now, you don't need to be a math wiz but it can help. You may or may not be aware of it, but everything in existance can be explained through numbers. When you get into game creation, everything IS numbers. Maptiles have ID numbers. Maps themselves have ID numbers. Walkabouts, items, spells, bams, all have ID numbers. Inside all those, you find more numbers like the X and Y coordinates. Even the letters you see in words and menus in the editor and in the game are actually numbers themselves (You just don't have to worry about that)! All you need to do is sit down and think how you can mess with the numbers.

So here's the making of a game done by me right off the bat. This is gonna be a little weird...

I'd like some EXP with a side order of EP.

We know that we can edit the players level with plotscripting, as well as direct what battles he fights. We can use global variables to store various information. If we were to create a script that obtained what battle the player was meant to fight through a "Instead of Battle" script, obtain some information from an autonumbered script we created that stored how much experience he was meant to get from that battle (Let's say formations 2-8 give him a random amount of 20-30), and then we send him into it. If he wins, we store this experience he is meant to gain in a global variable (Or an unused stat). If it's greater the needed experience (which the info would be stored in another autonumber script) then he gains the level.

What's the point? Well, you can easily determine how much experience you want the player to get for each level (Something everyone wants), and also decide how much of whatever stat they gain per level (Another thing people want customisable). Now take it a step further. It's cool enough right now just because it works differently from any other OHR game, but let's add say... Oh, EP, or Extra Points. We're going to use this for even MORE stat increments, or allow the player to learn magic. Maybe even let them spend it on mini games or rare items.

Not the cliched beasts of terribleness!

Okay, so we have a interesting gameplay system sitting there. But about a story? Well, this part is a bit tricky and very important. You don't just want to toss in some random story you've come up with. This creates inconsistancy between the systems and story. The systems and story should have some kind of connection, even if it isn't very apparent. Just SOMETHING to make the game feel like it's all flowing together.

So, with our current system we can say that the regular experience points are gained because that's your character getting stronger everyday from fighting beasts and demons. The Extra Points could be something that's "distributed" by say, the country your character comes from. You gain these points because you are, after all, out slaying terrible beasts and demons that are a threat to your country. At some point in the story (maybe the introduction if you can think of a good reason to) it's explained that this is an incentive program started by your country because these creatures have been on the rise lately. This character you play as is one of those rough types. Beating the crap out of stuff is what he does best, and this program was a god send since ... That's ALL he's good at. He's possibly this way because he's had a rough life, but we won't get into that. I'm here to talk about gameplay.

You sir, are so awesome. I want you to save us all!

So, after you're introduced to the character and know what EP are, the player can go out and beat on stuff. They gain a couple levels, joy! They have no special skills though, and have a few EP. You have them head back to the city, perhaps, to spend some of these points at the local EP Distrobution center (The people who run these places will "teach" you skills or trade you items based on the amount of EP you have). Upon having the player's character demand something, they're shocked at how much EP he's gained. "67 EP in a day? Hmm...". The guy goes back to consult with his peers. Turns out they're willing to offer the player an important job. Before you know it, the player is sent off on a mission to help remove some monsters from some mine over in some nearby mountain. Through these missions, the story about why these monsters are on the rise is explained, and EP is needed to progress onto more. The gameplay of the game becomes very important, and ties in with the story. You also get interesting rewards for gaining extra EP, like useful skills. Even though this system isn't anything entirely new, it's interesting because EP can be used for numerous things and presents choises for the player. Stuff isn't forced on the player, because this is a game. To me, stuff like this is extremely fun since it adds variety. If you want things to go a particular way, write a novel instead. Forced pathes don't really fit in a game.

So, you see how it works? If I actually sat down and developed that some more I could have an entertaining game if I managed to pull it off right. Remember: The story does not make a game. Gameplay makes a game. The story is a REWARD, not an incentive. Rewards are good because the player played the game well and deserves something for it. Incentives are bad, because they're only there to keep the player playing. Without it, the player would be bored to tears. Example: "Man, I'm so SICK of fighting these things! I just want more story! *sob*". If that ever happens, something is very, very wrong.

You're so useless! You're fired!

But you know what one of the biggest problems in todays RPGs? Spells and abilities. How many of you actually use Sleep or Poison in the game you play? I sure don't. Even IF there was times they could be used, it was just easier to pound the enemy into the ground with attacks and be done with it. The only spells I've ever had to use in an RPG are the elemental spells like Ice, Fire and Bolt. Simple stat enhancement spells are useful at times too, but rarely. That's what, 12 spells out of 72 that I actually use? What's the point in having the others?

Well, I personally think that games like FF have them just because it's a tradition. I mean, who's ever played an RPG that didn't have Poison? It's absolutely unheard of! How often do you hear people using it? It's also absolutely unheard of!

Also, have you ever been playing through an RPG to find there is a boss that said spell WOULD actually be useful against, but happens to be immune to? The designers blew their chance of actually giving a battle some depth just because it's a boss, and it's supposed to be all "mighty". Boss immunities are the silliest things I've seen, if you ask me. Immune to some, sure, but there should be some status altering effect that could possibly screw the boss over other than having an elemental weakness. You'd be suprised how much more fun a game gets when you start to do various things in order to win a battle. Again, it adds variety and strategy. When I've defeated a boss using good strategy, I feel so good and I can't wait to fight the next.

No *shing shing!* followed by *zing zing!*?

I suppose the next thing I could touch on are battle mechanics. However, we all know how limiting the OHR is when it comes to battles. We also know we can write our own battle systems in plotscripting. So, for these very reasons, I'll leave battle mechanics for another article in the future where I mix the previous one and this one together... Maybe.

My head feels like it's gonna explode...

So, there you have it. In summery I covered ways of learning how to do stuff right, what I've noticed about the things I've noticed people like and hate, linking one thing to another (Gameplay and story), and how you shouldn't add useless stuff. I hope this will help you in some small way at the very least. It sure helped me. I've come to understand what I think about gameplay even more than I did before. It may seem like rambling sometimes, but under all that I'm trying to get a point across, heheh.


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