When too much time passes between the release of good RPGs, terrible things happen to me. I get this sense that there has to be something out there that I missed. There are thousands of games, there must be a RPG I didn’t play or didn’t play enough or haven’t played in a long time. Something. I become the addict who has flushed all his junk trying to quit, who then tears his house apart looking for a stash he prays to have missed.
I’m in the closet, digging through stacks of old games, cursing the missing CD in the Neverwinter Nights box. I black out. When I come to I’m on Steam with a copy of Two Worlds in my cart. It’s been a long time, right? They patched it. Right? I black out again.
I wake up at an intersection, lost in thought at the change to green, furious beeping behind me. It’s 6:30 on a Saturday morning and I’m driving to the office…to get the copy of Ultima IX from the games library. It’s the only Ultima I didn’t finish. I have to finish it. I want to finish it. Don’t I? (No.)
I know how this will end. There I am, at my desk, surrounded by empty Starbucks cups and wasabi peas, trying to find someone on the Underdogs forums to help me get a Gold Box game running on DOSBox.
Sweet, sweet DOSBox.
Oh, God. What am I doing?
I was in the middle of this sort of debilitating relapse when Risen surfaced (I was literally trying to get Temple of Elemental Evil to run on a Vista machine when it finished downloading). Risen isn’t a bad RPG — I think it more or less deserves the reviews it has been getting – but it didn’t hook me. In fact, all it really did was remind me to go play Oblivion. Again.
(Timely, given the rumors of a new installment .)
And that’s a mystery I kick around a lot. Why is Oblivion what it is? Why am I back to playing Oblivion for my RPG fix with all of these other RPGs to pick from? Why are other people apparently doing the same? There are 17,445 player made mods for this game on TES Nexus, the latest uploaded just hours ago — for a singleplayer game that popped in 2006. Why? Why have I spent hundreds of hours playing Oblivion (and hundreds more with Morrowind before it and Daggerfall before that) but I can’t get into double digits on many of the others?
As a game designer, I spend a lot of time thinking about this. I might get to make a RPG someday. If I do, I want to know where the magic comes from. Granted, games like Risen, Two Worlds, Gothic, and The Witcher aren’t all trying to deliver exactly what Oblivion did but most RPGs share a lot of the same component bits. What is special about the way they’re arranged in Oblivion that sets the hook so deep?
So, on the occasion of my two zillionth visit to Cyrodiil, here are my notes on what I’d think about to design an Oblivion-like RPG:
1 – Do not have One Big Story
Having NPCs talk about things happening in the world can be very powerful . However, if the majority of the conversations and quests the player experiences revolve around the same event, it makes the world feel small. Everyone is about the same event, so there’s no sense that anything exists beyond that event.
Oblivion is certainly built around a central story but, while gates to Crazytown are popping open all over the place and issuing forth flaming death, the majority of the people you encounter clearly have other things going on.
2 – Do not flowchart
I get the sense that a lot of RPGs that tout “you can go anywhere” and “you can influence the story” begin with a flowchart. Someone lays out a linear experience – the player goes from A to B to C — then they go back and start shoving branches into this. (Perhaps they get clever and decide you can do A then C then B.)
I think you have to come at games like this from a different direction. Don’t just allow people to go to different places and complete things in different orders, don’t just make it possible, expect that they do this. Make it impossible for them to not do this.
You get done with the tutorial level in Oblivion, exit the sewers, and the game pops up a message that essentially says, ” there’s a lot of stuff out there — good luck.” If you want content that wide-open, you need to think about it as systems, not linear material.
3 – Let players decide who they want to be
This is a byproduct of the flowchart approach, where a designer visits each step along the planned path and decides how to tinge the experience based on choices made. If the player has made the “good guy choice” then the NPC says “hi, hero”, if he has made the “bad guy choice” then the NPC says “you suck, villain”.
Games that take an approach like this can provide a focused experience for any planned paths but it’s a binary kind of thing. Often, the game gives you a choice between Hitler or Ghandi – you’re either kicking babies or apologizing for bleeding on your nemesis. A lot of Bioware games have this problem for me, to the extent that I find myself looking at every conversation tree and trying to figure out which option gets me down the path I want instead of thinking about what I want to say.
To achieve an Oblivion-like feel, I think you have to jettison plans for predetermined character progression and instead build systems into the game that allow NPCs to have a range of responses to the player’s decisions. This does mean that the impact of individual player decisions will be lesser and somewhat harder to display (you’re not going to have the ability to provide a KOTOR-like good or evil path) but you’ll achieve a greater range of potential interactions.
And that’s one of the reasons I keep coming back to Oblivion, really. There aren’t two or three paths. Rather, the game accommodates what I want to do. It gives me ways to realize a lot of different characters and stories.
4 – Give things their own lives
Is it a horrible pain in the ass when you want to buy something and the vendor isn’t at his shop because he’s at home in bed? Yes.
It also makes the world feel like a world. The place has rules. People do things you expect them to do. They have houses and beds and they walk to work and eat lunch and so on. Is it a crude simulation? Certainly. But a high degree of sophistication isn’t the objective. Having nothing is immediately apparent — as soon as you visit a shop two or three times and see the same guy behind the counter regardless of the hour, your expectations are set. Even the crudest “simulation” can distract from this and will make the world feel magnitudes more alive.
The first time you crest a hill and see some people getting in a fight in Oblivion, it’s a reminder that you’re in a “heliocentric” world. The universe doesn’t revolve around you. There’s other stuff going on.
5 – Inventory
It seems silly but inventory is absolutely critical to developing a sense of a place. If you’re not picking up things and selling them and moving them around, the place lacks substance.
As soon as I stepped off the boat in Morrowwind I walked into that dining room, saw that nobody was looking, and started shoving forks and plates into my pockets. Tableware isn’t at the top of anyone’s epic loot list but it makes the world feel like a world. There’s a plate on that table. It isn’t just art. I can pick it up. I can throw it. I can run out of here with it and sell it.
Like the vendor standing behind the counter, this is another element of a game that establishes the tone almost instantly. The first time you get to loot something in the game, it sets your expectations about the world. If you can strip your defeated foe of the weapons and armor he was shown wielding (not to mention the arrows you fired into him) it’s a lot different than if he plays a death animation and vomits out a random loot drop beside his corpse.