Posted May 22nd 2012 by Anthony DiPalma.
Even casual gamers know the impact that role-playing games have had on their favorite genres for years. Whether you're deciding to wield a sword or spell against a dragon in Skyrim or contemplating which sidearm you want to equip in Call of Duty, the fact is that players take on the role of a virtual entity; a carefully crafted identification of themselves and the decisions these characters make are based on the players' instincts. Lately, the industry has been seeing a growing trend in Sandbox RPGs, which are a sub-genre of traditional role-playing games that can be generally more user friendly. With the release of Capcom's Dragon's Dogma and the flood of medieval-fantasy games drowning the market in a sea of dwarves and magical wizards, it's hard to know what actually qualifies as a good RPG. Luckily, we're here to help with a short list of features that separate the amazing from the mediocre.
Arguably one of the most important aspects of a game is its atmosphere. The overall tone of the game has to be consistent and, whether you know it or not, should subtly influence you as a player to carry on a quest or just go back to shooting aliens in Halo. A game's atmosphere is like an actor in a movie; it must never break character. It's essentially the difference between Nicholas Cage starring in yet another poorly juxtaposed pile of shit or Edward Norton staying awesome in everything he does. (Ed, if you see this, give me a call. I love you.)
What do I mean by "consistent atmosphere?" I mean that the world a player is in can be perceived as a real, living, breathing universe with its own set of rules. Take a look at The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a northern continent rich in lore, or better yet Kingdoms of Amalur, which contains over 10,000 years of history written by some of the greatest storytellers in the fantasy genre. Of course, some of the best games to offer such a deep level of immersion aren't even actual RPGs. BioShock is not a role-playing game at all, yet the fallen underwater city of Rapture is easily one of the most recognizable settings in the past 10 years. If game designers want players to immerse themselves and become part of the creation, the person holding the controller must feel like they're in a world that has always existed, and will continue to exist, even after they're done playing.
4.) ENEMY VARIETY
There are few things more satisfying than slaying a dragon or blowing up a space station full of genocidal robots, but once you've killed 9,000 dragons and discombobulated (it's a word) your millionth synthetic cyber-killer, the feeling quickly vanishes. Enemy variety is something many developers often overlook, and it's really a shame because players know that an entire world with danger lurking in every corner should have more than four different types of monsters. Dark Souls is known for throwing various classes of demons at players and surprising them at every turn. (Dark Souls is also known for making me tear the flesh from my bones in a rage that burns like the heat of a thousand suns.)
A great example of this would be Final Fantasy XIII, which remains almost unrivaled in the number of foes that players can cut down. Each area is met with monsters of all shapes and sizes, from giant cybernetic robot-dogs to little cactus-people that run around in circles. Not only are these enemies different from a design standpoint, defeating them is a strategy in and of itself. You can't just bombard the same enemies with swordplay in Final Fantasy XIII. In fact, each title in the Final Fantasy series has a different battle system with the occasional returning beast from previous games, but you will have defeated more enemy types in five hours of Final Fantasy than you would in 20 hours of Skyrim.
3.) SMART A.I.
Imagine you're walking down the street with a friend. You're going to the store to buy some Mountain Dew, and along the way your friend utters the same phrases maybe five or nine hundred times. Annoying, right? What if this same friend keeps bumping into you and running off in another direction, only to reappear minutes later so he/she could block the doorway and leave you stuck in your local 7-11? Would you want to strangle your buddy and make their parents watch you butcher their only child at gunpoint? I certainly would, and that's why having smart A.I. companions can be a lifesaver. (Literally.)
Luckily, most RPGs have taken care of this recently. In Fallout: New Vegas players were able to talk to their companions and form strategies to make the trek across the wasteland much more stress-free. Want your computer controlled partner to hang back and take out mutants with a sniper rifle? No problem! In fact, you can even share some of your ammo with your marksman buddy. When I played Skyrim, I would always share some of my loot with Lydia, my traveling, ax-wielding mistress. She deserved a portion of the treasure because she took care of all the vicious snow-elves while I threw fireballs at puppies.
Capcom has created a unique system in Dragon's Dogma which allows players to customize a "Pawn;" a computer controlled ally who not only assists you on your journey, but can also be sent to your friend's game (and their pawn can help you, etc.) to give tips for boss battles and treasure locations. It's an interesting way to make NPC bots useful for a change, and it's great to see that A.I. characters are responsive to their environments. In Final Fantasy XIII and Mass Effect, the supporting members in your party cannot be directly controlled by the player, so it is up to the developer to ensure that the bots know when to attack, when to defend, and when to not jump in the way of a fire spell. If these allies were stupid, well, the games would be much less fun and much more aggravating.
2.) ACTUAL CONTENT
Designers need to understand that giving players a massive open world is a great way to show off the skills of the talented artists and programmers responsible for shaping the videogame industry. Unfortunately, it is just wasted time if there isn't anything to actually do in the world. Take a look at L.A. Noire, a beautiful piece of art that recreated a stunning and accurate portrayal of a city caught in the glitz of Hollywood theatrics. (You can read Frankie's full review here.) This is all well and good, but there was virtually nothing to do once the main story was finished. I appreciate the time it took for the artists at Team Bondi to work on even the tiniest details, but there isn't much of a reason to revisit the streets of L.A.
Skyrim is a completely different story, and the same can be said for most Bethesda RPGs. My quest-log in Skyrim is still full of unfinished missions ranging from something as mundane as returning a stolen pair of boots to something so grand that it ends with me teabagging the corpse of a dragon atop High Hrothgar. I've had Skyrim since November, and the fact that I can still play it and discover a new location filled with loot is truly remarkable. Hell, two-thirds of my time in Skyrim was taken up by sidequests that involved diving deep into dungeons or planning the assassination of the Emperor himself. The player must have the option to choose how they want to approach a game. In truth, there are actually very few people who enjoy having their hand held down a narrow corridor from point A to point B.
1.) PLAYER CHOICE
Many games succeed at giving players the illusion of choices that can leave an impact on the world they're apart of. The best example for this generation would have to be the Mass Effect series, a trilogy in which every decision, for the most part, shapes the way the player sees the galaxy. (Before you complain about the "bad ending," I have already voiced my opinion on the matter and I stand by the belief that the artists at BioWare will "make it right" for everyone complaining, even though they shouldn't have to.) Though Mass Effect is certainly not the only series to stress the importance of choice, (Fable, Dragon Age, Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, etc.) it is one of the only games that truly allows players to be who they want to be.
Want to have a male Commander Shepard form a relationship with another guy? No problem. Want female Shepard to be a lesbian? That's cool, too. In fact, according to a poll conducted on IGN, many players happily accept same-sex relationships in their games. This is great news and hopefully more developers can form real, cohesive relationships that aren't tacked on stereotypes which only serve to be politically correct.
That being said, the choices given in Mass Effect are far more than personal sexual preferences. In fact, the decisions the player must make actually leave a physical mark on the galaxy. The same can be said for Fallout 3, where gamers were given the option of destroying an entire town for money or arresting the mobster who asked you to set off a nuclear bomb. Once the player decides to take the money, that's it. The town is no more and all that remains is a smoking crater. The player can no longer visit the town and take part in any quests there. It's choices like these; the ones that have real consequences to the real world in which the player inhabits that make a game shine.
At the end of the day, RPGs are here to stay, and if developers choose to ignore these aspects, the genre will never improve. Of course players can't always have the big budget titles like Skyrim and Mass Effect, but players should at least know what goes into making games like that. What do you think? Are these important to making a great RPG? Do you have your own suggestions? What do you think makes an RPG stand out from the competition? Let us know!
I agree with your assessment. I don't put too much weight on A.I. because I have very low expectations of their abilities. I usually assume I'm doing it myself and anything an A.I. partner contributes is a bonus. It would be cool to have a Rainbow Six type of shooter with A.I. that is spot-on though. Choice is a very neat new feature. It is utilized the best when the choices are varied enough to provide an option that best represents the gamer. Sometimes the choices are too black and white, it's either you choose to be a hero or a jerk. I like the choices that fall into the grey area, i.e. do you go into a burning building to possibly save a few strangers or do you continue your one-time pursuit to capture a notorious killer? The only thing I would add to your article is the importance of a stellar storyline which is probably a subsection of "atmosphere". I like games where the storyline takes me places I want to go. I'm not big into time travel, so although I loved Chrono Trigger the game did not feel as epic to me. It is not necessary but I really like when familiar series tries the jRPG genre. Taking the Super Mario world into the turn-based RPG style was a lot of fun. Tossing fireballs, fighting piranhas and goomba from a different perspective is very appealing. I'm not sure how many series and worlds are recognizable enough to pull this off, but I'd like to see someone else give it a try.
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