Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Reasons I Have Quit RPGs


I have 6 or 7 unfinished RPGs in my collection right now. RPGs are one of my favorite genres, but they also can be some of the most tedious and frustrating games to play. I’ve been fooling around with the idea of constructing some sort of “best practices” rulebook for RPGs; this list would inform part of that rulebook. Not the parts that are obviously my idiosyncratic opinions, though.

Reasons I Have Stopped Playing Your RPG

1) Your save system sucks. I can load up inFamous or Prototype or any number of amazing open-world games and be sure that when I start up, I will be placed right into the game world. If I die, I might lose some progress in a quest, but I’ll keep all my equipment, experience and skill allocations. If the game crashes, I know the autosave has my back. Last Remnant on the PC autosaves every time you change location and after every battle you’ve won. That’s brilliant! I’m not playing a file management minigame, I am playing a “kill shit and get loot” game.

So, other jRPGs, why do you still insist on manual saves and only at save points? Why doesn’t every game do what Baiten Kaitos did and give the option to restart the fight I just lost? Because I am telling you right now that I will quit your game if I die and lose progress.

2) Your first hour sucks. Let’s not talk about all the RPGs I have sampled for less than an hour and then abandoned. If in the first hour, I sit through a long cutscene with an elaborate backstory, I will quit. It’s all nonsense to me at this stage. If in the first hour I don’t experience any combat (aka “gameplay” aka the reason I am playing your game), then I will quit.

Throw me into a battle and let me experiment with the system to see what works and what is effective. Give me a level or a new item so I see how those systems work, too. If your characters have character, let me see a little bit of that. Give me structure so I can understand how combat, items, equipment and towns interact with each other in a controlled way, but don’t get bogged down in a bunch of details. If your combat is so complicated that it needs a tutorial, sure! But let me skip it if I feel I got the basics, and only give me what I need to know for the first hour. Advanced tutorials should be optional, but always available.

Incidentally, I’ve played a shitload of RPGs. If I can figure out your combat system completely and totally in under 30 seconds, I’m done.

3) Your text speed sucks. I’m an extremely fast reader. Extremely. Some people are extremely slow readers, too. They need time to get through things, but I need to blow through your bullshit exposition as fast as humanly possible. I turn on subtitles and read them before people finish speaking their lines. If I have to sit through your text ticking out at one word a second, and I can’t skip to the next line? I will quit. If I can’t skip spoken dialogue? I will quit. As a player, it’s really up to me to decide what is important and what isn’t.

4) Your game speed sucks. I love the Spiderweb Software games. I really, really do. However, there comes a point where I have to revisit an area I’ve been to before, and I have an objective that’s on the far side of a map. So I scroll there, I click, and I wait for my characters to walk there. And wait. And wait. Maps are big in this game. I’m sitting here, staring at the walking animation for twenty or thirty seconds. Then I talk to the complete the objective and walk back. And I wait another thirty seconds. Hey, congratulations, I just spent a minute twiddling my thumbs!  Let me go fast - and if I can’t, at least give me a button to mash endlessly while I am pressing “up”. I’m one of those people who rolls or dashes everywhere, if I have the option.

The same goes for battle animations. Look, on my twentieth encounter with a group of three skeletons, I think I know what I’m doing. If your battle animations take ten seconds each, then after twenty battles, I’ve therefore wasted three minutes just watching the screen and doing nothing.

5) Your equipment screen sucks. I love The World Ends With You. I really, truly do. It’s a game with a unique setting, a fun character-based plot, and an interesting, unique, challenging battle system. Yet as I play the game, I have to keep a notebook next to me with my current equipment stats written down. When shopping for new equipment, the game doesn’t tell you what your current equipment does. Tactics Ogre has the same problem: look at your current stats screen, memorize your stats, and then go into the store and try and purchase things that are better than the arbitrary numbers you keep in your head.

Your store screen needs to show me the number of items I already own, the exact change in stats that occurs if I equip a character with the selected equipment, and ideally some sort of icon to indicate general goodness or badness. Otherwise, I have to start writing shit down and doing calculations in my head. You know what’s good at the arbitrary calculation of numbers? Computers! You know what I’m holding in my hands? A fucking computer!

Incidentally, an explanation of what each statistic means should also be readily available.

6) Your levelling curve sucks. A good RPG gives large, discrete stepwise power shifts. A bad RPG kills you with minor +1s and +2s here and there. If I buy new equipment, I need to feel how powerful it is next time I take it into battle. If I get a new spell, I need to understand how much more effective it is than the old spell I’ve been using. This is what keeps me coming back to your game! The dungeon/town/explore cycle doesn’t work if I don’t care about what I just bought in town, and if I don’t care about what I buy in town, then your game is just a dungeon crawler with bad distractions in between.

7) Give me shit to do. Speaking of dungeon/town/explore cycles, I don’t want to just go into combat after combat. If I wanted to mindlessly murder mobs, I would probably be playing a shooter. Crafting games are great, because they give me something to focus on besides gold and experience grinding. Skill systems like FFT or Lost Odyssey are great because they give me other objectives to focus on in combat besides getting to the next quest point. Side quests or mini-objectives or optional combat modifiers like chaining mobs all let me do more than one thing at once, which keeps my mind off the tedium of combat and always makes me feel like I’m progressing.

8) Bizarre difficulty spikes. This is admittedly amorphous and hard to pin down. Long story short, I shouldn’t hit impenetrable walls. This could be something like two boss fights back to back with no save in between (Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep), or a massive scale-up in battle that I need to grind indefinitely in order to overcome (Last Remnant). If you can’t nail down difficulty, at least make it obvious to me how hard something should be with a challenge rating based on my level versus the enemy’s level. Give me the information I need to understand if something is too powerful for me, and let me know what I need to do in order to correct the imbalance.

2 comments:

  1. Great stuff as usual Zach, and good timing: I've found myself cursing Skyward Sword for gross violation of several of these points.

    My favorite is #3 (which I also feel acutely), especially because of the sentence you end with: "As a player, it’s really up to me to decide what is important and what isn’t."   I agree, but I have to admit that I love the debate between who gets to assign value / meaning / etc.  Generally this is reduced to a binary (designer vs. user), but things get interesting if we allow the field to get more complicated, say by including social and political factors as actors in their own right.  

    Your points (as I understand them) deal primarily with the feelings ranging between tedium and boredom, which makes me think of a brilliant piece recently published in Postmodern Culture called "Listening to Nothing in Particular: Boredom and Contemporary Experimental Music."  (http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/postmodern_culture/v021/21.2.priest.html) It is, in my opinion, extremely relevant to contemporary game design, as boredom is typically misunderstood as something to avoid evoking (or causing, or feeling) at all costs, without bothering to understand what boredom is, what it does, etc.  It's very much not psychoanalysis, but something much closer to philosophical inquiry, as evident in Priest's quoting of John Cage: "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all"

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  2. And OK, double comments all the way across the sky, but here goes: the article I linked above is also instructive in that it invokes Wallace, and for real I have lost count of how many times people have told me that they stopped reading Infinite Jest because of reasons approximate to those articulated in your post.  1. I don't know who this character is.  2. I have no idea when this is happening.  3. If I have to flip to the end of the book one more time I quit.  4. I refuse to read footnotes on endnotes.  5. What does a Depend Adult Undergarment have to do with anything?  6. It's too heavy.  Etc. etc.

    And those are all good points!  I can't blame anyone for quitting IJ because of them.  And yet it transcends all of that so thoroughly that, for the reader who has completed the book, they're no longer considered flaws.

    So here's the thing: Are they strengths that sometimes masquerade as flaws?  Or is it simply an application of a paraphrase of the Cage quoted above?: Do something boring for long enough and it becomes not-boring.  Or perhaps a rephrase: Do anything for long enough and you'll find reasons to like it.

    Speaking of which, I'd better get back to rolling bombs around in Skyward Sword.

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