Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Computer RPG Desires

Shamus passes along an indie game developer's request for feedback about what makes an enjoyable computer RPG.

My favorite ever was the first Magic Candle. My brother and I, along with two friends, spent a lot of one summer vacation playing that game.

The part of the game I want to focus on was its enormous, sequential, small-block plot.

At the start of the game you were told that a gigantic magic candle, normally maintained and protected by the Good Guys, had been captured by the Bad Guys. Your job was to lead a team of adventurers to recapture and restore it. If it melted before you succeeded (several hundred in-game days), the world would end.

Unfortunately, the "restore it" half of the task was tricky. The folks who made the candle ages ago only wrote two copies of the book describing how to care for the candle. One copy was kept by the candle's guardians and must now be destroyed by the Bad Guys.

Your team needed to get the other copy. By talking to people in the town and castle where your adventure starts, you learn that:
  • The local dwarves are upset because orcs stole their cultural treasure, an ancient hammer. The hammer is currently at the bottom of the nearby dungeon.
  • Those dwarves make hoyam essence, which attracts and soothes magic wild animals. Although they normally never give away or sell any, they would be willing to give some as payment for returning that ancient hammer.
  • The second copy of the book is in a magic vault at the bottom of a second dungeon, not too far away. The vault can only be opened with a special key.
  • In the nearby mountains lives a magic wolf, around whose neck is hung that special key.
So you talk to everyone, conquer one dungeon, give the hammer to the dwarves in exchange for hoyam essence, trek into the mountains and get the key from the wolf, and then conquer the second dungeon.

All of that just to get the instructions for your main quest: gathering the items you need to restore the candle.

Each of those steps took 1 to 5 hours. Quick steps (talking, trading) alternated with longer steps (dungeons, mountains). The focus remained on the end goal: to save the world by restoring the candle.

The resulting pace meant that you always felt like you were making progress on a difficult yet important task, while seeing character growth.

This is what I miss in other computer RPGs I have played. Rouge-likes lack the plot. In MMORPGs the environment does not change, undermiming the plot's sense of progress. Thief II had great game-play but could never be as epic as Magic Candle in either world size, length of task sequence, or character development.

The rest is decoration if the RPG gives me a sense of making progress on a difficult yet important task while seeing character growth. I would not care if the setting was fantasy, science fiction, Old West, etc. I would not care if I led a team of adventurers or a single protagonist. I would not care how character growth was handled.

I would not even care if there were interesting puzzles: for a time I enjoyed the Game Boy Dragon Warrior games as something mindless to do instead of a bedtime story.

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