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Better Gameplay

by Moogle1

I have to admit, I was suckered into writing this article. Rinku and I were discussing the last Monthly's round of articles when I mentioned that gameplay, a more important design aspect (for games) than story, was given the back burner. He said this was unintentional and suggested I write this article.

That's okay, though, because you've been suckered into reading it. If you sit through the whole thing, you might learn something, too, for example, why Secret of Evermore is a better game than you think. Read on.


I. Player Interaction

"What's this?" you ask, "Outline format?" Sorry, I had to keep this article organized. Organization is very important, but it's not what this article is about. This section covers the player side of gameplay.


What is Gameplay?

Rinku touched on this in his article last month. Since about seven people read through it (myself included, I'm proud to say), I'll rehash. Gameplay involves any and all decisions the player has to make. For example, should Link start out the game by getting the sword? Should Denim burn down the town? I won't go into the categorical detail of last issue, I recommend you read it instead, but I will cover the relevant aspects.

Making Interaction Fun

"Fun" is a key word when dealing with gameplay. When designing the player's interactions, places to explore, baddies to beat up, moral or conversational decisions, ask yourself, "Will I have to think about this decision?" and "Will I have fun doing this?" If the answer to one of those questions is "No," consider why that may be. Is the element really necessary? If the answer to both questions is "No," the element is probably better off out of your game.

A bad example: In most games, NPCs will say the same thing over and over. This is excusable given the limits of game designers. Where it gets ridiculous, though, is when NPCs ask you a question like "Have you ever seen the Blue Orb? [Yes] No" and you can answer the NPC twice. For some reason, the NPC will believe that you have discovered the Blue Orb in the last few seconds or that you suffered a stroke of amnesia before his eyes. This detracts from the feel of the game and from the replay value. Choices that can be made twice don't make the player replay the game to see what would have happened.

A good example: The OHRRPGCE game Origin genuinely surprised me. No dialogue choice could be made twice. Many of them even affected the storytelling (not necessarily the plot; more on that later). This is fun interaction. It brings the player into the game and makes him think. "Should I agree with him? If I do, will I have to pay for it later?" Tactics Ogre is an even better example of this. The first major decision the player makes, whether to burn down a town and kill its citizens, changes the rest of the plot, decides the hero's Alignment, and makes one of the other characters, Leonard or Vice, your enemy. Choices like this make the player stop what he's doing and consider the consequences of what he's about to do.

Those are all in my third category (moral or conversational decisions). Consider these examples from the other categories: Enemies who must be defeated in an irregular manner (Ozzie from Chrono Trigger). Dungeons with traps and puzzles (the Legend of Zelda series). Side areas that can be explored but are incidental to the plot. Secrets and hidden items within the bounds of the existing gameplay. Adding any of these will greatly intensify the player's enjoyment of your game. Break the monotony.

Don't Let Common Sense Stop You

"Hold on," you say, "are you serious? You're sarcastic, right?" No. Seriously. If it doesn't make sense in real life but it's fun, then don't worry about it. Anyone who does is a nitpicker and probably doesn't really like games, anyway.

Let me explain what I mean. It's not to be used as an excuse. When I was much younger, I would validate bugs in my program by making them misfeatures. That's kind of funny, but it doesn't really work. What I mean is that you shouldn't worry about everything making real life sense. For example, wouldn't the wolf in Sheep Rancher eat the sheep outside of the Star Area? Sure, but that's not a game.

On the other hand, it still sort of makes sense; after all, you don't want the wolf to get in there with the sheep. In this way, the player can remember his objectives clearly. If the sheep and wolf were all different-colored squares, he might forget that the brown square should stay out. This was my big problem with Shifting Maze, but more on that in the next section.

Control

Control is important. Frustrating control means frustrating game, without exception. Do not, do not, do not (I say "do not" three times for emphasis, see?) let your game's challenge arise from figuring out the controls. When people press a button, they expect a response. Tha's why they pushed that button.

Bad Control

Bad controls are the bane of gameplay. A steep learning curve fends off possible players. After all the work you spent to get them to play the game in the first place, that's not what you want. (Speaking of which, an article on effective advertisement of one's game would be interesting.)

As a case study, I'll use the aforementioned Shifting Maze. An excellent puzzle game, but it had poor control. The first thing you see when you start up the game (besides a title screen) is a text box that explains that you must get the red boxes into the starting area, so far, so good, and that if you press various number keys, you can lay down different shapes. Hold on! The player (me) is left wondering what these shapes do and how exactly he's supposed to lure these guards into the starting area. On top of that, he still has to remember which keys correspond to which shapes. It's counter-intuitive and it's frustrating. Don't let control be a barrier to enjoyment. Many commercial games would have had considerably better success if they could master good control.

Good Control

Good controls fit one of two characteristics: they are simple and intuitive. That's right; they only need to be one of the two. Being both is better, but sometimes you just can't make controls any simpler without losing game options.

Simple controls are just that, simple. For example, the standard OHRRPGCE game has a two-button interface (removing the direction-pad, which is standard for just about everything). On top of that, you can choose which two buttons those are. I prefer Ctrl and Alt, personally. Sheep Rancher also has a simple interface, using only one button.

Intuitive controls make sense to the player. A GUI (graphical user interface) is intuitive because the user clicks on icons that correspond to what he wants to do. Pushing the arrow keys to move the hero is intuitive. Pushing the first letter of an action (the S button for Sheep Rancher's Spells) is intuitive. Anything that the player learns quickly and can remember easily is intuitive and therefore good control.

The other side of control is making sure the character responds to the player's keypresses. Usually you don't have to worry about this, and when you do, it's usually a lag problem with HamsterSpeak. There's not much you can do about this and it's self-explanatory anyway. Onto the next section, what does this control thing have to do with my RPG?

Menu Navigation

Back to your RPG. Yes, you have an aspect of control in your RPG, and you probably haven't realized it. I'm talking specifically about your menus. I've played a few games where the hero starts out with around thirty spells and I can't even use them all before the game ends. I definitely can't figure out what they all do. Don't throw thirty spells at the player at the beginning of the game. Have a little mercy.

Item descriptions are one of the few in-game helps you can give the player. Make them useful. You don't want a "Candy" item with the description "Tastes yummy" that cures 20 HP but takes away 5 MP. Similarly, if an item serves no purpose other than to be sold, mention that in the item description. Also, there's nothing wrong with having Potion items in your fantasy RPG.

The Fun Factor

The fun factor is the bottom line of gameplay. "Is a game fun?" is the ultimate question. If not, it really doesn't matter how captivating the story, how melodic the music, or how breathtaking the graphics. Your players will drop out like flies. As King Haggard has said in his reviews, play your game. If you don't have fun playing it, neither will your players.

Originality

Originality brings players to a game. This is especially true in the OHRRPGCE community. How many people out there plan to play Way of the Wizard when it releases? Quite a few, I imagine. Now, how many people will be playing Way of the Wizard for its plot? I have heard people express interest in its plot, but my guess would be none. How many will play for its graphics? The graphics team is Royal, Charbile, and Ralfo, three of the community's best artists. Still, I'd say none. How many will play for its music? The soundtrack will be
100% original, an absolute gem in the community, but again I say none. It's originality, folks. People played OHRRPGCE Tactics, but guess what? It wasn't that great of a game outside of its battle engine.

The easy mistake to make is to let the originality be the game. In a recent conversation with ChaosNyte, Tarot Master and Cody Watts, I described an idea for a battle system I had been toying around with. ChaosNyte asked what would be so good about it. Tarot Master replied that he would rather play a game with an original battle system than one with the normal battle system. Cody rebutted that he would rather play a good game with the normal system than an average game with the normal system.

Like I said, though, originality brings players to a game. If I listed all of the OHRRPGCE games I've downloaded in the past six months, I think maybe three of them would be standard RPGs. Think about the games that you've downloaded and why you downloaded them. Think about the games you've enjoyed and why you enjoyed them.

Addictiveness vs. Repetition

There is a very fine line between addictive gameplay and repetitive, boring gameplay. It differs from person to person. I found Tetris repetitive and Lemmings addictive, and I'm sure that some of my readers are exactly the opposite. It's not a crime to present the player with similar challenges over and over again, but make sure you're on the right side of the line. It's probably a better idea to add fresh elements every so often or at least a change of scenery.

In your RPG, don't make every enemy the same except for their stats. You can do different things with your battles. Do them. You have the functionality that the vets were requesting for a year. Poison and stealing are supposed to be implemented soon, and you breathe a sigh of relief, but I think you have enough flexibility with battles right now to do some pretty amazing things. Think of some memorable battles in commercial games: the three sisters, the Calbrena, and the Mom-Bomb from Final Fantasy IV , you may not be able do the three sisters, but you can do the other two. I don't suggest that you actually put those guys in your game, but that's the type of non-repetitive battle you should put in your game every so often.

Replay Value

This is a subject usually reserved for commercial games, which like to be taken off the shelf and to stay off the shelf, but it really applies to your game, too. When the player beats your game, what will keep him from sticking the files in the recycle bin the same day? You do want the players to keep playing it, right?

A commercial game with good replay value: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. In this game, if you play through without ever dying, you get a different ending. Excellent gameplay idea! I tried playing through without dying, but found out at the end of the game that if I died with a faerie in a bottle, it still counted as dying. Similarly, the first Zelda game has a second quest, in which all the dungeons are rearranged. The variety in these games makes the true fan have to play them again. It?s really not as much work for the programmer the second time around.

What about your game? The best way, in my opinion, is to put secrets throughout the game and let the player know how many of these he?s collected and how many he needs to collect. You know how you get a percentage of items found when you beat Super Metroid? That?s really awesome! Players will strive to achieve 100% completion. When they do, you should reward them with something. If they?re collecting insignificant items like the ?Turtle?s Paradise? posters in Final Fantasy VII, you should give them a powerful piece of equipment. If it?s an endgame tally like in Super Metroid, give them an extra cinematic ending sequence. Absolutely do not disappoint the hardcore fans who found every item or beat the special boss. They?ll hate you for it. (I would think this was common sense, but so many commercial games have disappointed me with lousy endings or inadequate compensation for my incessant fandom.)

II. Balance

Oh, that?s right. There is a section two. As it turns out, this is a fairly in-depth, technical section two. In the last section, we talked generalities and concepts, but here we?ll get into more mathematical gameplay.

Power Relationships

About five of you have visited my website and read my article on this. Everyone else gets to take a detour because I?m not rewriting that article here. Go here, read the article, and don?t come back until you?re done.

Managing Difficulty

Difficulty is a matter of taste. Some people (Rinku) like to make their games harder than others. I?m not going to tell you how hard to make your game, but I?ll try to tell you how to make your game that hard.

Stat Balance

Stat balance is all about number-tweaking. Unfortunately, RPGs use numbers to represent abstract concepts like Magic Power. You really don?t know how hard your game is unless you do a lot of test battling. Do a lot of test battling. In addition?

* Don?t make Magic weaker than your normal attack. If you have to spend MP to use it, it had better be stronger than something you don?t spend anything on.

* Giving any character every element to attack with is a bad idea. The player will only use the one the enemy is weak against (more on that in the next section).

* Keep an eye on how long your battles last. Enemies that go down in one hit are pretty pointless, but you don?t want your random encounters to last five minutes each. Boss battles should generally last several minutes.

* It?s no fun to win all of the time.

* It?s no fun to lose all of the time.

* Spells like Final Fantasy VI?s Ultima or Final Fantasy VII?s Knights of the Round are a bad idea. Don?t use them.

Effective Combinations

In 7th Saga, there is a Demon enemy ? one of the first enemies the player runs into. It?s a fairly weak enemy. Later on, the player runs into an Android enemy, who has a high Attack power. When the Android appears with the Demon, the player needs to use some strategy. The Demon can be killed in one hit, but it?s not doing as much damage as the Android. On the other hand, the Demon sometimes uses a spell that halves the hero?s Defense, leaving him vulnerable to the Android?s powerful attack. This is an effective enemy combination.

Using less powerful enemies to boost the strength of the normal enemies is a good tactic for game makers. Anything that makes the player think about the battle and take his finger off the Attack button is good.

On the flip side of the coin you have effective hero combinations. Don?t give a single hero the best offensive and defensive spells. Avoid giving a single hero attacks in each elemental category. Don?t force the player to make obvious choices. In Final Fantasy VI, there is no purpose to Edgar?s Fight command once he gets the Chainsaw tool. It?s all right to have one character whose special attacks are free and stronger than his normal attack, but it should not be common.

Think about your hero variety. If the player can choose which characters he has in his party, why would he choose any individual character? A game with good character balance is Final Fantasy IX, which has highly specialized characters. You can list each character?s strengths and weaknesses. Zidane is a strong attacker with the Steal ability, but he lacks attack variety and can?t heal. Steiner is the best attacker but has limited MP. Eiko is the best healer but a bad attacker. Dagger is a good all-around character but burns through MP. Quina is a Red Mage sort with a decent attack and the best variety of spells. Amarant is an offensive character with an excellent support move (Aura). I liked Final Fantasy IX because it regained the character differentiation that had been on the downslide since the fourth installation.

Level-ups


The eternal question of RPGs is, ?How do the characters become stronger?? If you rely too much on experience, the player is stuck leveling up. It?s fun at first but quickly gets boring. If you don?t rely enough on experience, random battles become pointless. (See Chrono Cross.)

A game that dealt with the problem really well is Tactics Ogre. In this game, attacking a lower-level enemy gives only 1 EXP (it takes 100 to gain a level). You get much more for attacking a higher-level enemy, and killing one usually gives you 100 EXP. The beauty of this system is that it allows all those level-up freaks out there (you know who you are!) to get their levels up in training and random battles but lets everyone else get a huge boost from the inevitably higher-level bosses.

While you could do that in the OHRRPGCE, it would be too complicated to be worthwhile. Some designers choose to give no experience for random battles. If you?re going to do this, give something else. Items or GP are good replacements. Optionally, you could take a lesson from Tactics Ogre and let random encounters give a minimal amount of experience and boss battles quite a bit more. It?s really up to you, but you should know that it really defines your game.

The Multiplayer Scenario

I?m going to sidetrack a little bit and talk about multiplayer games. We?ll come back to your RPG later, but this is important.

The ?AI? of Multiplayer

Multiplayer games have the best artificial intelligence available: natural intelligence. Most people won?t cast Cure3 at full life or continue to use Aero after discovering that the enemy absorbs Wind. Really stupid enemies take the player out of the game. The player may enjoy the break but he doesn?t like to have his intelligence insulted. Unfortunately, even most commercial RPGs suffer from this.

I recognize the limited flexibility of attack choices in the OHRRPGCE, but I also know that many times authors don?t take full advantage of the ?Desperation? and ?Alone? attack sets. Here?s a hint: make special attacks just for enemies. For example, make your Cure spell only work on the caster so that when one enemy gets low on life he doesn?t heal another. Avoid Stupid Enemy Syndrome.

Overpowerfulness: Why I Make Up Words

I like making up words. Overpowerfulness is a good example. And since we?re talking about gearing your game towards a less gamelike (another good word) feel, let?s talk about overpowerfulness.

In many multiplayer games, there?s a tendency to provide an overpowerful weapon or other advantage. Take the BFG in Doom or the Golden Gun from Goldeneye. This alone is not bad. It?s how it?s dealt with. I posted the following question as trivia in the discussion forum RPG Chefs: ?You have a force in your game (weapon, character, etc.) that is more powerful than the others. Name at least three ways you can balance the game.? Good answers included making the attack slow (the Golden Gun takes a long time to reload), including a way for other forces to equal that force, or making another force which works well against that attack but not necessarily against other attacks.

Bad answers (and this is the key) included limiting the availability so that only a few people could get it or making it only available in the late stages of the game. In the multiplayer arena, giving a few people an advantage over the rest is a bad idea. You don?t want newbies to become isolated. The next section is important?

What?s This Got To Do With My RPG?

?and I?m not sure why it?s a separate section. Basically, I have to emphasize and overemphasize the retardedness of ultimate attacks and weapons. Let?s go down the list:

Bad Ultimate Attack: Ultima
Good Ultimate Attack: None
Bad Ultimate Equipment: Paladin Shield
Good Ultimate Equipment: Ozzie Pants
Bad Ultimate Attack: Knights of the Round
Bad Ultimate Attack: Eden
Bad Ultimate Attack: Renzokuken
Bad Ultimate Attack: Wishing Star

?noticing a pattern? If you?ve got anything Ultimate in your game, it?s probably bad. ?But you have to beat Super Mega Ultimate Evilthing to get it,? you say. Guess what? If the player can beat the most difficult bad guy in the game, he doesn?t need the ultimate thing. ?Oh? yeah.?

III. Putting the Game Back Into Your Game

Okay, you have all these awesome concepts now. How do you make a game from them? This section will teach you techniques to help integrate story with gameplay.

Story

You?ve read enough about writing a better story. I?m talking about story as it relates to gameplay. Breathe a sigh of relief; you?re almost done with the article.

A game typically falls into one of three categories: 1) games that tell a story, 2) games with a variable story (Choose Your Own Adventure-types), and 3) games that really don?t have or use a story.

Games as a Medium for Storytelling

This category is the most common (in the last decade, anyway). Role-playing games usually fall into this category, though sometimes they can fall into the next. If your game is a medium for telling a story, then the challenge factor is often decreased and the player?s motivation for continuing the game leans more toward finding more about the story.

Story as a Medium for Gameplay

Games didn?t really fall into this category until about the last five years or so. Choose Your Own Adventure books have been around a long time, but never made into video games. The technology didn?t exist until the NES era and wasn?t taken advantage of until 32-bit systems rolled around. Your game probably doesn?t fall into this category; if it does, then the player wants to see what the outcome of his actions will be. The plot changes in this game as opposed to the storytelling.

The difference between plot and storytelling is that plot is the eventual outcome of the game and storytelling is the little things that keep the game interesting. A storytelling change would be changing who Cloud takes on a date. A plot change would be Rufus deciding to disband Shinra or Sephiroth becoming a good guy.

Gameplay Independent of Story

The entire Atari era had gameplay independent of story. Most games still do. This doesn?t mean that the game doesn?t have a story, but it does mean that the player?s motivation for playing the game isn?t related to the story but instead to how many points he can get. Puzzle games are almost invariably members of this category.

How to Make a Game

What? You already know how to do this? Okay. Skip to the next section.

Just kidding. There are two ways to design your game. You can either start with a gameplay concept and build a story around it or start with a story then build a game around it. There are benefits and risks to both.

Gameplay then Story

If this is how you planned your game, then it had better have been a good gameplay concept. Your game just won?t stand without it. Fortunately, if it was, your game will probably be more fun than a game made using the other method.

The tendency in making games this way is to neglect the story or make it incidental. This is a no-no. You?re making an RPG, so you need a good story. That?s the bottom line. If you?re not making an RPG, you should still have a back story for your game ? something that keeps the player goal-oriented. Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda both dealt with rescuing a princess. Sheep Rancher had the back story of wanting to become a Master Rancher. Tetris had no back story, and while it enjoyed good commercial success (with many clones) it should probably have had one as well.

Story then Gameplay

If this is how you planned your game, you will need characterization. Story-oriented games fail unless they have characters the player can identify with. Good games using this method tend to bring the player into the game more than gameplay-oriented games.

To bring back an old topic, Secret of Evermore used some good techniques in this area. I can?t say for certain whether the story for the game was created first, but I would guess that it wasn?t. However, it did an excellent job of creating the game?s environment. One specific example is the marketplace in Antiqua. The barter system made more sense for the time period than regular purchasing and the ambient noise of the marketplace was very realistic. Secret of Evermore made better use of ambient noise than any other game I know of.

The risk you run in creating a game this way is that you might forget to make it fun. Ask yourself why you?re not writing a book or screenplay instead. If you can?t think of a good answer, chances are you?re neglecting gameplay.

IV. Conclusion

Ah, finally. You?re nigh-finished with this article. I only have a few more points to bring up (or bring back up) and then you can go back to making your game.

Where Do You Want Your Game to Go?

This is a very important question. How do you want your game to feel? I could spend all day giving you gameplay tips but if they don?t fit your idea for your game then you shouldn?t implement them. If your hero is The Strongest Man on Earth, then maybe the slimes just outside of town shouldn?t have any chance against him. After all, what would they do to the villagers?

Hopefully, you took a few useful ideas for your game from this article. Let?s move on to the last section?

What You (Should) Have Learned

If you skipped down from the top of this article, shame on you. You?re really not taking as much from this as you should have. For the rest of you, this should be some pretty good review. Just a few bullet points in summary.

* Make sure your game is fun. Make sure you have fun playing it.

* Don?t let common sense get in the way of fun gameplay.

* Don?t let controls be an obstacle to gameplay.

* Don?t give the player an Ultimate anything.

* Don?t make your enemies stupid unless they?re supposed to be stupid.

* Don?t forget about your story.

* Don?t neglect your gameplay.

* Make sure your game is fun. Make sure you have fun playing it.

This article is done and over. E-mail your questions, comments, hateful flames, credit card numbers (with expiration date), and plotscripting questions to moogle1@wizardmail.com.

 

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