Monday, January 24, 2011

5 features that are dumbing down RPGs

At their worst, the computer RPG designers of yore were like sadistic dungeon masters, drunk on power and determined to punish anyone who attempted to finish their game. For players, rewards were scarce, death was arbitrary, and hoop-jumping was de rigueur. Even the simplest Fedex quest could give you fits, as you tried to track down a well-hidden NPC (possibly locked behind three doors, each requiring you to solve an algebraic word problem).

Then RPG designers got soft. Those sadistic DMs turned into something more like those genial, fiercely humanistic soccer moms who insist on trophies for everyone. Many features that were once considered standard in RPGs were removed or reformed, with the guiding principle being something along the lines of: "Take out everything that isn't fun."

There are many reasons for this shift. I could write a book detailing how wider societal changes have led the genre to where it is today. Shifting attitudes about the middle class and the role of...

But no, seriously, it's all about World of Warcraft. WoW has proven something that few likely suspected prior to its release: that a fantasy RPG can appeal to a mass market and make lots and lots (and lots) of money. Thus it's no surprise that many of the features that have crept into traditional single-player games either originated in WoW, or were inspired by its "all fun, no hassle" design philosophy.

That's not a bad philosophy. And, it must be said, many recent changes to RPGs - especially those driven more by player feedback than the WoW copycat mentality - have been positive. Still, in the all-consuming desire to make every single moment of their games fun, I think single-player game designers are at risk of losing the sense of challenge that makes games rewarding.

Since the Internet seems to favor things in list format, here are the top 5 features that are serving to "dumb down" RPGs:

1. Quest compasses
It's no fun having to search for NPCs or locations critical to your quest. Thus the idea that every adventurer should have an onboard GPS system has gained traction in recent years. The only thing missing is a synthetic voice that provides up-to-the-minute directions. "Turn right at kobold village. Dragon lair will be on your right."

Granted, many of the old-school games had quests that were needlessly time-consuming due to vague instructions or devious area design. Still, not only are quest compasses immersion-breaking, but they discourage the player from exploring the game world (which I suppose could be a positive for game designers if the game world is dull and shallow). Markers highlighting quest NPCs and locations are similar hand-holding features, but aren't quite as maddeningly officious.

I mean, what next? RPGs that play themselves? What's that you say... there's already one on the way?

2. Penalties that don't penalize
It's no fun to be injured, cursed, poisoned, or lost in a maze. And it's especially no fun to have to tramp back to a temple to have members of your adventuring party resurrected. So game designers have kindly eliminated or watered down those sorts of penalties.

Of course, in reducing irritation for some, RPG designers have also reduced challenge for all. More importantly, they've taken away some of the dynamics that can make RPGs surprising and memorable. I can remember moments in the Infinity Engine games where my character was poisoned, and I wondered which would run out first - my life or my healing potions. Moments like that offer a different sort of challenge than the usual hack-and-slash routine.

3. Level-scaling
It's no fun blundering into a situation you can't handle and getting one-shot killed, or having to wade through a pack of weak monsters to get from point A to point B. Therefore game designers have implemented level-scaling, so the game world adapts to you and encounters are always appropriate for your level.

I've already ranted about level-scaling and how it shatters immersion. What I haven't talked about as much is how it also reduces the importance of careful play and, you know, actually paying attention. In older games, gaining intelligence on your foes through scouting or other means was often valuable. With level-scaling ensuring encounters are evenly matched, that's not so much the case anymore.

4. Ungimpable character advancement
It's no fun spending dozens of hours playing a game, only to realize your character is too weak to beat the next boss. So - unless they're developing a game based on DnD or some other tabletop property - game designers typically keep the rules simple and the decisions limited.

The question is: Should an RPG's character generation system be a game unto itself, with the possibility of failure (in the form of a weak character), or should it merely provide the player with a risk-free means to customize his or her avatar? It's a valid question, and the customization option is a valid design choice for a game. However, that choice is definitely a dumbing (dumbening?) one.

5. Crafting
It's no fun having to conserve limited healing potions, or to find a dozen magical long swords when your character is specializing in short swords. To solve this "problem," game designers allow players to create their own items through crafting skills.

Crafting on its own doesn't dumb things down. In fact, it's the only thing on this list that actually increases complexity. The problem is that, in too many cases, crafting minimizes the importance of resource management. With abundant components (because rare components aren't fun), crafting often allows you to churn out healing potions or engineer optimal weapons. If the game isn't balanced for this - and it's often not, because not all players want to craft - then crafting is like turning down the difficulty slider.

Having read this list, you might get the impression that the end goal for game designers is to make RPGs less, well, RPG-like. All the features that are dumbing down RPGs are doing so by lessening the significance of common RPG elements - wide open game worlds, long-term consequences, rules modeling real-world behavior, resource management.

That's great for people who don't like RPGs that much. For those of us who do? Well, these newfangled features aren't much fun.

UPDATE: If you enjoyed this article, you might also want to check out 5 old-school RPG features that should stay dead.


  1. Hi Mat,

    (Last post deleted because of bad format.)

    I just made a reasonable size post and the internet lost the lot before I could do the post confirmation! Most annoying. Anyway, this is an attempt to write again, but may not be exactly what I had before.

    Great post and one close to my own heart.

    I agree with you that many of today's modern RPGs appear to have removed the more "challenging" aspects. I think the problem is that today many people do not see a challenge as fun. At least, I should say, the taste in what makes a challenge has changed. Furthermore, I believe it is easier to build a module without the challenging aspects than with them, which may be another reason we are finding a shift in game style. That's my own personal module building experience anyway. That said, I like to think I am trying to keep faithful to the old style gaming without compromising the fun. Here's my own approach with respect to your five points, which I jope will appeal to your own style too:

    1) QUEST COMPASSES: Quests will not be handed out on a plate and neither will the player always have a map available. In my experience, a great deal of the fun was uncovering a plot or quest without being told where to find it in the first place. I am not averse to giving clear instructions, but I do like the player to be involved in what they uncover.

    2) PENALTIES: In my opinion, a game needs to have penalties to make the rewards that much more satisfying, and even add "personal experience" for the player. As long as there is a means to overcome the penalty (at least most of them), then the experience should remain fun. With a CRPG, however, extra care needs to be taken with some penalties to avoid player's meta-gaming, by reloading after a penalty has been applied.

    3) LEVEL-SCALING: Monster levels are set. If you take on a creature too hard for you at low level, then it's likely to be a quick end to your PC. I do, however, add at least one warning about this in the game for those player's who may not have experienced this before. That said, I do have some NPCs who level if I believe they would have levelled like the PC has done.

    4) CHARACTER ADVANCEMENT: While I do like to provide a number of potential paths through a module, I also recognise that a poorly developed PC will more likely fail to succeed. If this is the case, however, it should make the player realise that perhaps they are not such an RPG player as they first thought. After all, I do believe that developing a PC is as much fun as the quest itself. After all, it is the player's choices of their avatar build that can end up deciding how well they do at the game, and be a rewarding experience itself.

    5) CRAFTING: I believe this requires careful attention with respect to component availability and crafting potential to decide how well this plays. In my own world, I have opted for both random and placed components to help govern the rate of item devolpment. However, as there is a random element, even I do not know how well a player will do when it comes to creating items to help overcome the world's problems. What I do know, however, is that the player who does craft should have an advantage over the one who does not, simply because they are making the most of their resources. I am interested to see how this one will pan out in my own module.

    That's roughly what I said in the last post, and this time I have written it outside of the internet before copying and pasting. :) I should always do that really.

    Cheers. As I said, a great post.


  2. Hey Lance,
    Sorry you lost your original post. I'm glad you took the time to re-submit.

    In terms of mods, it's definitely easier not to include the challenges. They aren't in the base game, so you often have to take special steps to add them. Plus, a certain number of players will complain (though I think the type of players who play mods are probably more open to challenges than most, because many of them have played the game extensively and/or are old-school gamers).

    In addition to the influence of WoW, it could be that the rise of gaming communities on the Internet, and the feedback they bring, has pushed design to an easy direction. Nowadays every design decision seems to kick off a 30-page forum thread where the haters and the fanboys go back and forth. I've heard the term "whineplay" used to refer to games that don't have the challenging elements in them.

    Sounds like your design philosophy jives with my own. In fact, I can't find anything to disagree with.

  3. Mat,

    Agree entirely on the list with almost nothing to add. The BG series is starting to show its age, but it hit every one of your points to a T. Even crafting was only limited to a few items you could find all the parts for. Most of the "quests" in BG I were kind of lame, but I still sometimes miss the feeling of wandering around with my party looking for adventure, gold, and glory. I doubt we ever see anything like it again... unfortunately.

  4. Tiberius, I have to stop myself from referencing the Infinity Engine games too much when talking about game design. They did so many things right.

    I actually just reinstalled BG2 to see if it's really as good as I remember. For me, it still holds up. I know I'm in the minority, but if Bioware were still making IE games in 2011, I would still be buying them.

  5. I'd buy new IE games, too. New NWN2 expansions as well. There's a whole section of the industry missing at the moment -- small developers which are content to produce low (not not indie) budget games for a modest yet profitable audience. Old-school IE-like games are a perfect candidate if you ask me.

  6. Definitely, Alazander. I'd love to see what, oh, say, Ossian Studios could do with IE or post-SoZ NWN2.

    For that matter, I'd love to see a monetized modding platform for single player DnD games - something like what the Kindle does for book publishing. If modders/small developers could charge, say, 99 cents for a mod, I think you'd see an explosion of high-quality content.

  7. This whole topic and the nostalgia it created just prompted me to reinstall BG I. Here I go off through the Sword Coast again...

    To some of the comments, I'd buy new IE games and new NWN II content as well, so long as it looked like the developer did a good job. Alas, I read conflicting reports about the current WOTC vs. Atari dispute. Not sure if that's even close to settled, so D&D is out for the time being, not that IE games necessarily need to be limited to D&D.

    I wonder what the actual audience for a new IE game might be? The engine would have to be cheap to license at this point...

  8. LOL, Tiberius. After writing this article, I reinstalled BG1 and 2. I played through the start of each of them, and may keep on playing BG2. I think I've finally forgotten enough for it to seem somewhat new.

    One thing that was sort of shocking to me was how nice (beautiful, even) BG2's interface still looks.

  9. Just beat Dragon Age II. SO disappointed. Found this article. Thanks. Agree completely.

    That game is an embarrassment to Biowares great reputation.

    I think I'll go back to Dragon Age: Origins and try out some of the DLC. I'm so sad that Bioware, who were the best, are appealing to console "gamers" now. Because they aren't gamers, they're just fools. Which is why everything is dumbed down for them :(