Making RPGs: Gaining Experience

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Few video games - or, for that matter, any other kind of media - are as engaging and engrossing as a well-crafted RPG. Unfortunately, the RPG genre is easy prey for an assortment of game-design vices. The follow tutorial discusses some of the best practices associated with the production of high-quality RPGs.

Contents

Planning

  • Before you do anything else, take the time to build a general framework for your game. Who will be the main characters? What will happen in the plot? Where will the game take place? What kind of item/equipment system do you want to use? How will the battle system work? Your framework needn't shackle your creativity, but if you go in without a plan, you'll probably become overwhelmed by the complexities of designing an RPG.
  • Regardless of the game-making utility you choose, familiarize yourself with the basic concepts of arrays before you begin your game. An understanding of the fundamentals of arrays will greatly simplify the design process; it's hard to make an RPG without them.

Characters and Settings

  • Take the time to design unique, lively, likeable characters - especially playable characters, although bosses and NPCs obviously warrant attention as well. Most RPGs are highly driven by character and plot.
  • Pay attention to the development of minor characters, too. Giving NPCs multiple pieces of dialogue - depending on how far you've progressed in the game, or the character that's speaking to them - makes for a deeper, more immersive experience, especially in longer RPGs. NPCs with their own backstories and interwoven relationships with other characters are infinitely more interesting than faceless townspeople who merely tell you where to go next.
  • Try to minimize your use of RPG clichés. Many tropes have been used so much by now that they've almost become a joke. Some conventions are difficult to avoid, but if you feel they must be used, don't go overboard with them.
  • While most RPGs take place in settings inspired by medieval Europe (sometimes with a generous sprinkling of mythological, sci-fi, or steampunk elements), don't let the conventions of the genre limit your creativity! An RPG set in a modern society (i.e. Earthbound) or another culture can make for a unique experience.

Balancing

  • Test your RPGs thoroughly, and seek a second (or third) opinion from a friend before releasing them. Even professionally-made RPGs frequently have "game-breaking" glitches, attacks, items, or equipment that players eventually unearth.
  • Make a smooth difficulty curve. Spikes in difficulty are not rare in RPGs! Similarly, avoid the pitfall of "downward-sloping" difficulty curves - I've played a number of RPGs where the game begins hard (because the players have weak attacks and an empty inventory) but ends relatively easy because the enemies' strength hasn't kept pace with the players' powerful new abilities.
  • Try not to force players to spend too much time "level grinding" in order to grow strong enough to have a chance at defeating the stronger enemies and bosses. A certain amount of time spent fighting enemies to accumulate experience points, outside of normal exploration, is fine, but requiring too much grinding can be burdensome and feels like a cheap way to "stretch out" the game.

Level/World Design

  • Avoid designing overly linear dungeons and caves. Add some secret passages, forks in the road, treasure chests, and all that good stuff. Even the more fighting-oriented RPGs can benefit from an occasional Zelda- or Pokémon-inspired block puzzle.
  • Be sure to add save points before fighting major bosses - it's mighty irritating to spend two hours fighting through a challenging cavern and then lose all that progress because you lost to a boss. Be sure to add a health refill before those save points, however, or else the player may end up getting into a hopeless situation.
  • If you're making a large world map, be sure to add a warping system or some other method of quickly traveling the world map, especially if players will frequently be backtracking to previously-visited locations.
  • Considering adding a system that enables players to bypass weak enemies that yield few EXP points. For example, in Earthbound, weak enemies flee from you, and in Paper Mario, it's reasonably easy to jump over or otherwise avoid enemies you don't want to fight.
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