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Small big improvements

posted on December 22nd, 2005 by jay

There are a number of small and debatably inconsequential flaws that reoccur in game after game. Always ready to take up unnecessary arms, I have outlined a few of these problems. Each genre has its own issues, but I’ll be looking at things that can generally be found in RPGs. Immersion is important in all games, but particularly necessary in a good RPG. These complaints all revolve around enhancing immersion without significantly changing the game design.

No matter how far storylines advance, most games have merchants that have exactly one thing to say to the player. This flaw makes sure the player is reminded that he is not actually taking part in a living environment, but rather a cold and hardwired video game. Some small effort on the part of the designers would do much to alleviate this problem.

Merchants who have a lot of greetings not only feel natural in complex RPGs with dozens of well developed characters, but more importantly they do not jar a player from an immersive experience. Something as simple as half a dozen rotating greetings for a merchant would spice things up significantly and if the designer were really ambitious then he could base what the merchant says on certain variables. Say you’ve been to that shop seven times before but never spent a penny, the shopkeep could randomly choose between 3 terms with the gist of, “Oh great, you again.” The opposite can be done if you’re a frequent paying customer. If your character has 500,000 pieces of gold on him then it would be natural for a merchant to be very excited to see him.

The merchant could also have a greeting that demonstrates he knows something about your character since you are probably a sword wielding hero who has already saved this particular village from certain destruction multiple times.

Be creative, it’s your job.

NPCs who always say the same thing are also irritating. Nothing makes you realize you’re playing a video game, besides the controller in your hand, like someone telling you, “The Eastern cave is blocked,” every time you speak to them without fail, even after the world has broken into chaos,

the dead returned to life, angels raped puppies and the Eastern cave was blown open with TNT.

Everyone you meet doesn’t need to have a rich back story, but giving them even two things to alternate between really makes them feel livelier. Grandia did this very well by not only giving NPC a handful of sentences but also by stopping frequently. So if someone had two things total to say, the game would break that up into 1A, 1B, 2A and 2B, each requiring the player to reengage the NPC. This allowed you to walk away if you found them boring and also made the player feel more involved. Typing it out makes me realize it doesn’t sound like much, but I felt it while playing and that’s what’s important. More should learn from Grandia and other games that gave the player a handful of things to hear from each NPC.

A lot of Western RPG’s fix the lifeless NPC problem of Eastern games by giving important people a complex dialog tree. This improves situations but leads to another problem. Most NPC’s will repeat the same thing to you ad nauseum. This is done so the player can reread important information but hurts immersion substantially. The people you speak to seem to have amnesia as they never wonder why you continually ask them the same three questions. The ideal way to deal with this is to put all the important info in a journal but a lot of games are so complicated that this would be unreasonable. A simple solution is to just give NPC’s a response that’s modified by a few words. If you ask a dwarf what he does and he tells you he’s a blacksmith then the next time you ask him what he does he can say, “Is it hard to hear all the way up there? I said I’m a blacksmith!” There you go; it appears people remember their past conversations with you. Some design teams give us a combination of the last two mentioned issues. Ask someone why they are in town and they’ll say, “Because the Eastern cave is blocked.”Then go unblock the cave, return to town and then ask the same person why they are in town through a fancy but apparently useless dialog tree. I think you know what they’ll say and “But I just fucking cleared the goddamn cave,” isn’t a dialog option.

Have you ever wondered why every single giant ant on the planet has exactly the same amount of health, strength, defense, speed and cash in his pocket, I’m talking about the red ants now, not the deadly pallet swapped blue or green ants? I can buy that these ants have more or less the same attributes since humans more or less do, take any ten naked people and see how many times you can hit them with a sword and you get basically the same number, but the idea that all of these ants have exactly the same amount of gold and items on them is simply incredulous. Sure, if the game is set in a Communist ant utopia. Too few games allow deviation in their enemy designs. More and more strategy RPG’s are remedying this by giving enemies a level, just like all the playable characters. This makes a lot of sense and does something to lessen the feeling of monotony that comes from slaying the same giant ant a thousand times.

I mentioned pallet swaps in the last bit. I am not against them in principle, I understand it’s a way to substantially create more enemies – although I think designers are using them less as game budgets sky rocket into the zillions of dollars. My caveat about pallet swaps is this; try to do a little more with them. Shining the Holy Ark did a fantastic job of pallet swapping because if you weren’t paying close attention you wouldn’t have even realized you were fighting something you’d seen before. The designers took the enemy models and added to them, subtracted from them, changed this and that and then changed the color. It was a perfect middle ground between lazily changing only the color of every enemy and creating all new bad guys, and in some cases I actually preferred the modified swaps because they kind of made sense and looked particularly cool, like an enemy you had fought earlier had evolved in order to better kick your ass.

My final complaint is pretty broad. I do not want to ever say, “if only I could x…then this problem would be easily solved” where x is something completely reasonable. If only I could jump, if only I could knock on this door, if only I could step through this shrub. All of these if onlys are completely reasonable and players should not think them during a game. Just the other day I defended designers in a discussion about Faxanadu. There are enemies in that game that can only be killed with magic because the game doesn’t allow you to duck. I do understand that specific mechanics are just that, mechanics. Graphics and emotion do not need to play into them, I could have been a deadly umbrella would could only kill things that reside a few feet off the ground because my handle, while smooth and luxurious, is just not as deadly as my spokes. The point is a game is made in terms of mechanics. In order to defeat A you can use 1, but then there are also B, who must be defeated using 2 and so on. All games can be broken down into bits like this and sometimes it seems people are too concerned with realism.

At the same time, a game that is trying to suck you into its world needs to not be so glaringly different from your own in stupid ways. I don’t care if the planet is perpetually on fire and I am playing as a talking cat, in my world a cat can navigate around a chair so, if I can’t in a game, I will be pissed and the game’s immersion will suffer. I defended Faxanadu but it was an NES game. Designers today should put enough effort into their games that these problems don’t keep popping up. It only takes a little more effort. If you want to keep me out of a room and I have a party of sword wielding warriors, make the door steel instead of wood and I won’t think, “If only I could attack the door.”

Many people will think these things are pretty insubstantial. Games are amazing and keep getting better, what the hell does it matter if the blacksmith always says, “Hello, may I help you?” Designers may think I’m naïve and have no actual concept of time/money and game creation. Both are valid stances but to me these are things that have high payoffs compared to the effort involved. All of these grievances disrupt immersion and remind the player that they’re playing a video game and this is something every designer should wish to avoid. I also think it is just good design philosophy.

These problems are not going away quickly despite the evolution of games. These are stupid and archaic things, why not solve them today so we don’t have to put up with a medium sized bush blocking entry into a cave in Final Fantasy XV. It is also usually worth it to make a rock solid smaller game than create a more epic piece of Swiss cheese. It is true that we remember plenty of overambitious games that didn’t pan out perfectly, but we also remember well made games that are tight and solid. Give up that 89th NPC and make the world the game exists in completely believable and real.

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