Saturday, May 4, 2013

Essential Ideas for the New Roleplaying Renaissance



Alongside tens of thousands of fellow gamers, I have participated in the recent surge of crowdfunding that, I believe, will lead to a very real gaming renaissance. Two of the most exciting of these games are Obsidian's Project Eternity and InXile Entertainment's Torment: Tides of Numenera.

Both of these titles are being constructed along the lines of the greatest classic cRPGs of the "golden era" of PC gaming. Not only are these games being developed in the same mold as Baldur's Gate and Planescape Torment and Arcanum, they are being developed by the same hugely talented people responsible for those classic games. It's all extremely exciting, and perhaps most exciting of all is the new dialogues opening up between developers and consumers--gamers, that's us!--which involve openly asking for gamers' input in the pre-production stages of game development. InXile's forum for Torment has a very nice set of mechanics in place for contributing game ideas--a mechanic I have made full use of in the past several days. My mind has been devoured with thoughts like: What are the things that annoy the hell out of me in isometric RPGs? What are the things that I always want to see an RPGs but never do?



This train of thought led me to propose several ideas both mechanical and aesthetic. Because both Torment: Tides of Numenera and Project Eternity are very much being developed in the vein of classic, Infinity Engine cRPGs, I feel that these ideas are applicable--and, to a certain degree, vital--to both titles. Or, rather, these are things that belong in every RPG of merit. While some may read these notions of mine and think, "that's obvious," or, "that's too simple of a thing to bother proposing,"--and while I may agree with those sentiments--I still believe that some things simply need to be said. Because of that universality, I am incorporating these ideas into a blog post to provide me (and anyone else who feels like it) with an easy resource to point out and say, "I want that."

I will do my best to fully articulate these ideas as best I can--which means I'll be writing as much as I feel necessary to clearly convey both my ideas in specific, as well as their emotional impetus. If you don't have the time or inclination to properly hear me out, please just avoid this essay entirely. Like I said, this is mainly a compilation of different ideas I have that I want to place in a single place, easy for me to access whenever, wherever, for my own personal use. As I conceive of new ideas--and/or find the time to fully articulate them--I will add them to this posting.



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The Manners/Morality Dichtomy: An Appeal for Tonal Dialog Options
Alternate title: A Consideration of the Sanjuro/Yojimbo Archetype


In most roleplaying games, there seems to be a very rigidly defined relationship between manners and morality. In short, when you see dialog options, the "good" path is written in polite language, and the "evil" path is written in rude language.

Essentially, these games are constructing a false equality between manners and morality. Good characters must necessarily be polite characters; evil characters much necessarily be rude characters.

And I hate it!

When I approach a roleplaying game, I try to construct a model of what kind of person I want my character to be--what kind of person I want to roleplay. I take a personality type I personally admire, and try to apply that personality type to the decisions I am presented with in the game. Usually, the personality type I choose is Toshiro Mifune.

Toshiro Mifune was a Japanese actor who became quite famous for his roles in multiple period films, most notably those directed by Akira Kurosawa. You may have seen him in such classic films as Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Throne of Blood (a fantastic re-telling of Macbeth), The Hidden Fortress (which you may have heard of as George Lucas' "inspiration" for Star Wars), Yojimbo, Sanjuro and Redbeard.


Mifune's characters' personalities are all essentially the same, and perhaps best exemplified in Yojimbo, Sanjuro and Redbeard. (The latter of which, I must mention, I regard as the absolute best film ever made). In these films, Mifune is the hero of the story--but he is gruff. He is ill-kempt, ill-mannered and ill-groomed. He is curt and dismissive and, at times, insulting.

Judged by his words, he is not a character at all--he is no better than the vermin who serve as the villains and/or antagonists of the films. But the worth of man (or woman) is not in what they say, but what they do--and the ACTIONS of these characters are the very definition of heroic. The Toshiro Mifune character is -my- quintessential hero archetype--completely unfettered by social obligations, but possessing a powerful sense of morality and self-sacrifice.

Yet in all my years (decades) of gaming, I have yet to play a single game where I've been able really role-play as I want to, thanks in large part to the pervasive manners/morality dichotomy I mentioned earlier.

I want to be able to play a game where I can do the right thing, but say the wrong thing. I want to be rude and abrupt and abrasive, but I don't want to be evil. I want to be able to play a game where other gamers and say the right thing, and do the wrong thing.

There are a number of different ways to implement this. The worst way is to remove tonality from dialog altogether--giving the player so little voice that he or she is forced to imagine that voice. "Will you do this, player?" An NPC says. "Yes," the player can say; or "No," the player can say. In several interviews, Chris Avellone has discussed the process developers go through when constructing player dialog options. He states that they generally create multiple character archetypes in their mind that the player might want to roleplay, and then write those characters into the dialog options. So the ideal solution would be to simply (greatly) increase the number of archetypes involved in a game--but to do that requires an insane amount of additional work and reactivity which, simply put, is not feasible in any game development project.

So, what do I suggest as a reasonable method to implement more versatility and malleability for player voice in an RPG?

In Planescape Torment, certain dialog options measured the player's intent--you could agree to the same task multiple says. These intent options were indicated with brackets. For example, an NPC might ask you for a favor, and your affirmative dialog options would look like this:

  • [Truth] "I'll help you."
  • [Bluff] "I'll help you."
  • [Intimidate] "How much will you pay me?"


(And, of course, you'd have analogous options for the denial dialog).

Dialog Intent options gave Planescape Torment's dialog system a great deal of depth, and allowed players to better react to the other characters in the game as they saw fit, rather than simply conforming to specific archetypes.

I propose doing something similar. Rather than gauge intent, I want dialog options that gauge tone. Are you being rude? Are you being polite? Are you bored? Are you interested? Players could determine not simply what they say, but HOW they say it--which makes it, to my mind, hugely important to the experience of role-playing. Tonal dialog options also have the potential to better implement realistic choices-and-consequences into RPGs, which is something I think all RPG gamers love seeing (which I'll get into after defining this idea a bit more).

Adding tonal dialog options would slightly increase the complexity of dialog trees, but at the same time, allow for the player to almost completely customize his or her in-game reactions to characters. For example, I would suggest at least six different basic tones:

[Polite]
[Rude]
[Dismissive]
[Eager]
[Bored]
[Interested]

Of course, even for a yes/no question, six different tones would yield twelve different potential responses! And that's too many to implement, I think. I do NOT think it's necessary for every dialog option to have tonal dialog options, and I do NOT think that tonal dialog options should always include all six tones. Tonal dialog options should be applied to dialog on a case-by-case basis, with potential tones chosen that make sense in the context. It simply doesn't make sense to be [Dismissive] while accepting a quest, after all.

[Polite] and [Rude] are general dialog options, which could be applied to any encounter and perhaps work best when the player is asking a question. For example: You walk through the arch of a large, ornate doorway. Inside, you see workers and servants scurrying about their own tasks with haste. In the back of the main chamber, you can see a large man sitting wearily behind an equally large, oaken desk. He is still and silent despite the hustle and bustle of activity around him. Curious, you get the attention of a nearby worker:

[Polite]: "Who is the man sitting in the back?"
[Rude]: "Who's the fatass sleeping on the job back there?"

Different characters should respond differently to different tones. Most would be more cooperative with polite characters and less cooperative with rude characters--but not all.

[Bored] and [Interested] work best for exposition--dialog scenes where the player is attempting to either receive or convey information. For example: you wake up on a stone slab in a mortuary, and a flying stone skull starts chatting with you. He offers to tell you all about the strange place you now find yourself in. If you ask him to keep talking to you in an [Interested] tone, he might give you more details, but if you ask for the same in a [Bored] tone he might omit certain details because he perceives that you don't really care. (This way, if players are bored by long-winded explanations and dialog, they can convey that sentiment in the dialog without telling the NPC to stop talking, or skipping the dialog altogether). Conversely, if you decline more information in a [Bored] tone, the NPC might get angry at you--you are, after all, spurning free-offered help/advice--which might impact your future relationship with that NPC.

[Dismissive] and [Eager] would seem to best fit accepting and rejecting quests. If you're dismissive, the quest-giver might see you as rude, and (if you are declining a quest) not offer you the quest again or (if you are accepting the quest) give you a smaller reward for completing it (less gold, a less valuable item, etc.). Being [Eager] to accept a quest might yield you a better reward, and being [Polite] while declining might make the NPC willing to offer you the same quest again. Of course, no one tone should be the "good" tone or the "bad" tone. Each NPC should react differently to the player's tone.

For example, if you accept a quest from NPC Alpha with the [Eager] dialog option, he may feel like it's something so easy for you that you don't have to think about it, and therefore give you the lesser reward, whereas had you been [Dismissive] or [Rude] he would have doled out a greater reward as he thinks the quest was something you had to go out of your way to do, or wasn't easy, and therefore wishes to show his appreciation.

I believe every dialog encounter should have at least two different tones for the player to choose from. These tones do not necessarily need to be clearly labeled (we should be able to discern tone from the content of the text) unless they are also tied character statistics that impact how NPCs react to the player in general. (I.E., if you consistently choose [Rude] dialog options, your character's Rudeness Stat would increase, causing some NPCs to refuse to interact with you--or require some coercion to do so--etc., etc.)

I also think Planescape Torment's intent dialog options (the [Truth]/[Bluff]/[Intimidate] stuff) is also important, but less so, as the truth of falsehood of a statement should be something the player can conceive of in his or her imagination, and the game should only recognize the truth or falsity of a statement by the players' subsequent actions. (I.E. whether or not your statement is the truth or a lie should not be dependent on what you say, but rather what you do--your actions determine the truth of your word).

--I should note that the little tone identifiers (i.e. "[Bored]") should not actually be visible in-game. The tone of a given line of dialog should be readily apparent in the dialog itself. What I am advocating is simply replacing the conventional character-archetype style of dialog construction. Instead of designing dialog options that would fit the voice of X and Y archetypes, dialog options for each individual conversation would be crafted along the lines of what kinds of tones a person could react with. While this may remove some of the "character" from player dialog options, it would give the player more freedom of expression--something I, for one, always love in my RPGs.

I think this mechanic would be an excellent way to consider dialog options and player interactivity, as it would broaden the potential for player role-playing and allow for meaningful choices that impact the narrative at a very immediate level, that can be unpredictable without annoying the player.

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The Benefit of Proper Perspective in an Isometric Game
Alternate title: Immersive Weather Effects would be Fantastic

Rain perspective is one of those little things that every game seems to do wrong, but that no one really seems to notice or care about. But it's something I always notice and--the more I see it, the more I care about it.

Most of the time you see rain in a game, it's not really rain. (This applies to all forms of precipitation, but I'll be using "rain" instead of of "rain and snow and sleet and hail and drizzle"). In many 3D game, and virtually 100% of isometric games, rain is depicted with a clever optical illusion that makes use of two different semi-transparent animation overlays.

First, you have the "ground" animation layer--this is, as you might imagine, a layer on the ground that shows the impact of the precipitation. For rain, you'll see little raindrops hitting thr ground, maybe some steam rising, things like that. (This layer isn't necessary for all kinds of precipitation; snow, for example, falling on a snowfield requires no "impact" animation).

Second is the precipitation layer--this is usually applied directly to the screen, and is the most visible element. Usually, rain is depicted as constantly falling in parallel trajectory from the upper right of the screen to the lower left. If you've played many old RPGs or RTS games, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Rain looked like this:


And it looked terrible. Isometric games are supposed to present the game world from a top-down perspective--the "camera" is placed high in the air and aimed downward. So why is rain depicted from the same lateral perspective that Morte and The Nameless One down below would see it?

Isometric games need to depict rain (and other forms of precipitation) in the proper perspective--and in a 3D perspective. There are two ways to do this. First, a game could render weather in full 3D--this is more work, but allows for more dynamic weather effects like wind and random thunder/lightning lighting effects. But the same effect can be achieved the same way rain was depicted in the older isometric games--using the exact same optical illusion! All it requires is a little bit more work from the artists in charge of creating the animation overlays, and a very small amount of new work.

Here's a quick mock-up of what rain should look like (and should have looked like) from an isometric perspective:


Since you are looking down on the action from above, the rain is falling away from the "camera" toward the ground. Because of this perspective, the density of rain in greater along the periphery of the screen, and lessened in the center--effectively framing the game-play rather than obscuring it. This effect would be be created by using two different animation layers for the falling rain--larger droplets "up close" that are more detailed, and smaller droplets that are "further away" that are less detailed. Furthermore, you easily create the illusion of wind by having the the say back and forth--the "close" rain would sway back and forth more than the "far" rain, and the speed at which the swaying occurs could easily be increased or decreased to simulate stormy or calm weather.

Implementing this kind of more accurate effect accomplishes several very important things:


  1. It increases the realism of the game world by accurately depicting what rainfall would look like from the camera's (player's) perspective.
  2. The proper perspective would naturally result in the rain effects "framing" the action, thereby infusing the game with a nice atmosphere without obscuring terrain to the detriment of play.
  3. It allows for weather systems to be much more dynamic and visually stimulating, which is important in a game where the player is "removed" from the action through the isometric perspective.
  4. The game naturally becomes much more immersive, as the accurate perspective (especially when coupled with wind effects, sound effects, lighting effects and character effects--like fog appearing near creatures' heads to simulate visible breath on a cold day, or steam rising form the ground) makes the player feel like he or she is "really there."


Because the camera angle of an isometric game is fixed, it is vitally important that all of the visual and audio elements contribute to the player's immersion in the world. Attention to detail is what makes these worlds come alive, what makes them so compelling and interesting and worth exploring--and well-thought and well-implemented weather effects are a vital part of crafting that detail.

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Let's Talk User-Defined UI Scaling
Alternate title: The only thing I want to see (other than a great RPG)


User-Interface scaling is a big of a big issue for me, because I have a very large (30"!) monitor. Playing games at high resolution yields not just too-small-to-read font sizes, but also renders many user-interface elements too-small-to-use. I'm not alone in having this problem, but it seems to me that most of my fellow gamers focus solely on the font size instead of the UI as a whole. At high resolution, UI elements become smaller, relatively speaking. The smaller the UI elements become, the more difficult the interface is to use.

This is particularly bad for RPGs and Strategy games that rely on very complicated user-interfaces.

What I would like to see in Project Eternity (and all other games, always) is some degree of user-defined UI scaling (and possibly also some degree of customization regarding element placement, but that's a purely cosmetic--and therefore far less vital--concern). Basically, allow us to determine what size font we want the game to display, and ALSO let us define the relative scale of UI elements--the dialog window X big, the mini-map Y big, etc., etc.

The main problem I see with this idea (other the the added work of implementing it) is creating art-assets for the UI that work at varying resolutions (I remember there was a but of a hullaballoo when Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition came out last year, when users were complaining that the UI was upscaled slightly when playing the game at high resolutions). Personally, I would rather have the game up-scale lower-resolution UI art assets to a higher resolution, than be forced to suffer through a UI so small I can barely read the text, or see the buttons.

Several games have toyed with UI customization--like Divinie Divinity and Diablo--where the player can drag and drop UI elements wherever on the screen he or she prefers to see them. That's a nice feature, but far from the most important.

I think user-defined UI scaling is important because it makes games more accessible for users with large monitors, higher-resolution displays, and those with poor vision. It also acts to "future proof" the game slightly by making the UI elements better suited for potential super-high resolutions. For example, the original Baldur's Gate can be played at 1080p resolutions... but doing so yields a UI too small to actually be usable, even on my giant monitor (setting up the game at 1080p also has the terrible effect of "zooming out the "camera" so far that the game-screen itself is unusable, but that's another can of worms). If Baldur's Gate had the ability to set user-defined UI scales, we could set the UI at, I don't know, 300%, and the problem would not exist.


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Expanded Journal Content: Bestiaries, Biographies and Big ol' Encyclopedias
Alternate title: Lore, Lore, Lore Galore

This idea is very simple, so simple, in fact, that I'm kind of shocked so few Western RPGs have gone with it--what I'm proposing here, after all, is a very common thing in Eastern games. Basically: expand the utility and content and functionality of the journal. In most WRPGs, the journal is simply a document the player can consult to see the progress states of various quests... and that's it. The only Western RPG I can recall that really tried to do anything more with the journal system was Planescape Torment.

Essentially, I want to see the "Journal" become a nexus for all kinds of information. All kinds of information. The quest journal is just the bare minimum. I want to see short biographies on all of the party members and prominent NPCs--and I want those biographies to be updated as we learn more about their pasts, and as we see their destinies unfold. I want to see a Bestiary, where I can view models, sprites or concept art of all the strange and wonderful animals, monsters and races in the game--with information about who and what and why and where they are. Final Fantasy XII had a fantastic Bestiary section, where once you killed an enemy it would be added to the Bestiary, and as you killed more and more, additional information would be added to the Bestiary entry--ranging from basic information about where the enemies could be found, to cool little pieces of lore. An in-depth Bestiary is a fantastic way to flesh out all the little details of a setting that simply can't be inserted into a game through narrative or dialog. Hell, I'd even love to see a "Library" style menu, where each time you open up a book in your inventory, the contents of that book are added to the Library menu so you can sell/dump the book, but still access the text. I also want to see detailed encyclopedias of key concepts and terms with regard to the setting, explaining those little details that are important--things that can't easily be addressed with the in-game narrative, yes, but also everything else. The Civpedia in Civilization games? That's what I want.

The journal screen should be a massive repository for lore in general. The benefits of fleshing out this system are, I think, obvious. First, it allows all of the crucial information to be located in a single space, which makes things much more accessible; second, it adds a great deal of depth to the setting--which, in turn, heightens the players' sense of immersion; and third, it provides a very important resource for players to remind themselves about information in the case of not being able to play the game for a long span of time. I can't count the number of times I've come back to an RPG I was in the middle of after several months, only to start the game over because I couldn't remember enough about the world, the setting, or the characters.

I'm not really sure how much extra effort this kind of expansion would involve. I get the feeling that very little "new" information would have to be created, as when constructing a world, this information about the setting and beings that inhabit it is very necessary. But assembling and organizing all of that information into a single set of menus could be fairly time-consuming. Nonetheless, this is a feature I really enjoy seeing.

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