Game ideas: General ideas for a truly great FP RPG

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General ideas for a truly great FP RPG

I just ran across this wiki while searching for games I wish people made. My favorite game of all time, and one that I *still* don't think has been surpassed, is Origin/Looking Glass' Ultima Underworld - The Stygian Abyss (and the excellent sequel, Underworld II - Labrynth of Worlds. Although few reference them, they were among the first "first-person RPG's". You viewed the world through your characters eyes, and you had the usual swords, crossbows, fists, etc. It was a real pre-cursor to Thief and System Shock.

What made these games so good was that they were almost completely open-ended. You could easily get yourself into trouble at a moments notice. The plot was revealed in a unique way everytime you played the game. In many ways, you stumbled through the game until you began to see the outlines of a quest. You often didn't realize you had just strolled into a bad part of town until it was too late. It was beautiful.

I don't really have an idea for a specific game, per-se - but I have some ideas of what I would like to see IN a game. Most of the things I would *LOVE* to see in a new game were actually in UW - that game was so far ahead of the curve, it wasn't even funny - despite the fact that it is a very old game now. In the day, I hoped it would be a precursor of things to come - instead, the genre went the way of Doom & Quake - mindless twitching of trigger fingers...

1) Make it first person, but make it an RPG game FIRST. The story should be king. Yes, to many this means little or no replayability. This is somewhat correct, and depends on the game depth. However, with a complex game like UW, this isn't a problem. (If my hardware would run it, I would STILL play UW) I would love to see a game with the graphical prowess of Doom III, but the intense, rich plot of an Ultima, or even Deus Ex.

2) If you are making a FP RPG, make the controls simple - and intuitive. After about an hour with UW, you were so wrapped up in the story, you didn't even think about the controls. The user-interface was simple, and allowed you to concentrate on the game. Remember, it's still part FP "shooter" - don't make the player have to consult the keyboard all the bloody time.

3) DO NOT use video cut-scenes if you can help it. Stay in-game, and script it. Try to make it so that the player feels they are eavesdropping if possible. (Deus-Ex got this down pat) Keep the suspension of disbelief by keeping the player "in the game", not watching movie clips. If the player is a dork, and wants to ignore a pivotal conversation - let him/her.

If at all possible, allow the player to "participate" in the cut scenes. There were several in-game scenes in UW2 where the player played an integral part.

4) Write complex stories, but allow for shortcuts. This is where subquests come in. For those in a hurry to get to the end and write a walk-through, allow the character to "walk through" if they like, but don't abandon people like me who enjoy a complex story. Unreal let me down big time, because they never really developed the Nali race - they were just slightly more interesting decor.

Create some political intrigue and mystery. I love how a lot of areas in Baldur's Gate had something odd going on. They just begged for some hero to come in and go on a quest. I also really enjoyed that sometimes you had to LOOK for the intrigue. For example, there are FOUR liches in Athkatla - but if you don't look for them, you will never know they are there. I actually HAPPENED across the first one in a bar near the city entrance, and stumbled into an AMAZING subplot. I was sold on the game after I ran across similar subplots like that.

Basically, create a game that COULD be completed in 40 hours, but that could also take 140 hours (or more). Create as many interesting, complex - but totally optional - subquests as your imagine can tolerate. Make them vary from "hard to find" to "this stranger left you a message".

5) Make the PC's actions mean something. If that means cutting off quests because the PC killed a critical character (not necessarily the quest giver - perhaps the quest givers brother or something) so be it. Deus Ex really irritated me when I was FORCED to abandon UNATCO, and join the "terrorists". That game would have been better if you had been offered several points to switch sides. Instead, the only game decisions that had any real affect on the outcome were all in the last level of the game! (There were a few minor examples - for example, if you visit a certain arms dealer, he gets captured in the end, and if you miss the funky tech in another area, Jock doesn't make it at the end) In the end, it was too little, too late.

In the real world, your actions have consequences - not all of which appear immediately. The game world will be much richer if actions have consequences - some immediate, some delayed.

As a corollary, allow the PC as much latitude as your imagination can muster. In UW, there were MANY ways to deal with EVERY situation. Although you couldn't avoid killing at all, you could get through much of the game without killing. Further, how you dealt with a situation often affected how NPC's treated you later. For example, in UW - there is a subplot involving castle intrigue. If you kill the wrong person, you get tossed in jail (the King lets you out once you make pennance). If you kill the right character, but not in time, you "lose" the subplot, but the game continues - without a very helpful character. But - if you figure out who the bad guy is in time, you can save said important character. When I played this subplot, I was EXTREMELY gratified as a gamer. Some of the best gaming experiences were in UW1 (and 2) where you could literally talk your way out of a situation. For example, in the prison tower level of UW2, you could get all the way to the top of the tower without fighting a single goblin. In fact, you could "beat" the prison tower and only have to kill one person. (You talked your way into the room with the gorilla-esque beast - and he would "take care" of the rest of the tower, leaving on the very top floor for you). I thought that was GREAT! In other areas, you could talk to the leader of an area, and either take on his quest - or just kill him and be done with it.

5a) DO force the player to make choices. Sometimes you have to choose between one faction or another simply because they are polar opposites. However, for a more nuanced game, allow for a possible middle-ground. There was a really cool subplot in UW1 where you could actually act as a "diplomat" between two warring parties of goblins (the grays and the greens). It was great because each side wanted you to kill the other, and offered a prize for doing so. However, you could act as a messenger, and get the two sides to agree to a truce. The best part is, you could ignore the whole situation - it wasn't required to complete the game. But, the fact that you had so many options made for a very enjoyable subplot.

5b) DO NOT force the player to make choices until absolutely necessary. Allow the player to develop their thoughts about which faction/side to join. If at all possible, make the player almost perfectly neutral in the beginning of the game. In the game of my dreams, (which isn't a fantasy game at all, BTW), there would be a main plot with three "factions" You could join any of them by making alliances, or go it alone. In my dream game, there would only be one "enemy" you couldn't join - but how you fought the enemy depended on which faction you joined.

5c) Reward strategy. Set up situations where it really helps to think about your approach. For example, when fighting the Marines in Half-Life, often you found yourself thinking about positions, and how to tackle problems. It should be intuitive - like handling land-mines with grenades - but also thought-provoking.

6) Write decent NPC's. I remember how much I *HATED* the conversation system in Daggerfall and Morrowind. Despite having something like 10,000 NPC's, they all said nearly the exact same thing! (bad example, I realize - given the sheer amount of unique strings required). Ultima is a perfect example of what I am talking about. You had to check with every NPC several times to really play the game, because as the game progressed, they would say different things in response to the situation. With proper voice acting or writing, you can even go to a whole other level with NPC's. You could tell when a NPC was a weasel, or hiding something. Alternately, you could tell if an NPC was a coward, a hero, or just an ordinary schmuck.

Make the PC have a visceral reaction (either good or bad) to your NPC's. Again (I know) Ultima got this perfect. Just from interacting with NPC's, I could tell in later subplots who was mostly likely what. I had a feeling for their character - and this was all done through beautiful dialog. The best part is, they only had to "speak" a few lines audibly to set the tone. The rest could be dealt with through straight text.

6a) Make complex NPC's. Think about intrigue, betrayal, loyalty, love, hate, deceitfulness, naivety, etc. I absolutely loved Baldur's gate for its interesting NPC's. UW II was great in this way as well - you really "got to know" the NPC's. I realized I was going to enjoy UW II when, during one subplot, I actually felt bad about killing a NPC! (you have no choice, the NPC in question attempts to kill you) Then, there is the ultimate betrayal in Baldur's Gate II, where a possible NPC stays with your party for 5 chapters (half the game), only to betray you at a very inopportune time (aren't they always?) He not only turns on you, but leaves your party one less strong. It was absolutely beautiful in terms of game dynamics! NPC's should have agendas whenever possible - even the stupid ones.

6b) Relationships with NPC's should have at least SOME affect on the game. If you betray an NPC, then any further contact with that NPC should be altered. If, on the other hand, you go out of your way to save an NPC, that should also affect future contact. The story should subtly change based on how you treat NPC's. Imagine a "hidden" subplot, where how you treat a random child on the street affects whether or not you are offered a certain quest? (which happens in Deus Ex. If you give a certain kid some food, he will tell you about a hidden entrance making Battery Park much easier). Likewise, if you kill or rob some random stranger, it would make sense that there would be some repercussions. Imagine walking out of town, and being jumped by the guy's family? Now, imagine the kids dying words being that he hates you for killing his father/brother/etc. May not affect the main plot at all, but I guarantee you, the player will remember that.

6c) Think about romances. They should be believable, and have a greater affect on the game. I would be interested to see the outcome where a lover in the game has a fight right before some battle, and walks out. Or, alternately, does something unexpected to benefit their lover.

Note, this does NOT have to be R-rated. BG2 handled this well for the Jaheira romance, and as flawed as it was, would be a good model.

Do not create "stupid" romances. By stupid, I mean ridiculously simple-minded. However, make the romance track the NPC. If the NPC is vain, then predict the kinds of problems that relationship will have. If the NPC is a full-elf, and your PC is a dwarf - well, you could have all sorts of fun with that.

6d) Think about unique friendships that aren't necessarily romances, and complex party dynamics in general. I'm thinking about how Gimli and Legolas' friendship develops over the course of the three movies. They were certainly not gay, but you could tell they were close. It would be really cool if two NPC's developed this type of relationship. Basically, make the party dynamics as complex as possible. For example, in BG2, if you tried to keep a lawful evil mage in the same party as a lawful good paladin - things got very interesting. That game really "got" party dynamics.

7) NPC's should react believably. For anyone who has played Daggerfall, or Morrowind, you know what I'm talking about. It didn't matter that the game had beautiful weather affects - the moron townspeople weren't smart enough to get in out of the bloody rain! (It was gratifying that they went HOME when it got dark, but that was about it)

A perfect example of this is Ultima VII (I think) where NPC's will actually turn on street lamps as the game progresses from day to night. Since this is a FP RPG, how about having characters huddle around the tavern when it is raining? The streets should be virtual empty.

Basically, script the NPC's so that they do what you would expect. If it's sunny out, have some kids playing outside or something. If it's raining, have them in pubs or indoors. If you want bonus points, make the transitions interesting. For example, on the first peals of lightning, have your NPC's scurry inside. When it gets dark, have them walk to their house or bed stall. It doesn't matter if it is somewhat repetitious - because real people are repetitous in the same way. I love to see a game where everytime the sun goes down, the townsfolk light their own lanterns - and if you kill said townspeople, the lanterns don't get lit.

Imagine breaking into a house, and killing the occupants. The rest of the game, that house remains dark - because there is no one left to turn on the lights? (now imagine getting caught, and not being trusted by 2/3's of the rest of the NPC's in the town for the rest of the game...)

8) Make the environment interesting, and not just a backdrop. In Baldur's Gate, you could actually get struck by lightning, which definitely made trekking into a storm more interesting. In Daggerfall, (the city), ghosts came out at night - and blended into the mist/fog. In Half-Life, although there wasn't any real "weather", the environment played an important part as well.

Done correctly, replayability could be improved if the factor of weather makes each game substantially different. For example, say your character wants to sneak into the castle. Rather than wait until dark, allow for the alternate possibility of using fog. Basically, make the environment either an ally, or an adversary - or at least make it more interesting.

9) Don't force an inventory problem on the player, but make it a factor. Ultima got this right for the most part, Baldurs gate was good - but you could spend a LOT of time dealing with inventory. On the other hand, don't make it so easy that it isn't a factor - like Deus Ex (for the most part).

For example, I often thought that Baldur's Gate would have been MUCH more interesting if the NPC's required food. That one aspect would have completely changed the face of many battles - where you arrive weary and hungry, but are forced to keep going. The somewhat unknown game "Betrayal at Krondor" did this, and it really made the game more interesting. UW also had the concept of food in your inventory, but once you were able to cast "create food", it became a non-issue.

UW was also good because there were so many ways to feed yourself. You could go fishing (Crap, you could make your own fishing POLE), you could cast "create food", you could steal it, you could buy it, or (if you were in the castle) just pick it up from the table.

On the other hand, don't make the player deal with inventory issues all the bleeding time. While it is interesting having 50 different kinds of arrows, it is a PITA to keep track of them all. Likewise, having 50 different kinds of ammo is pointless. This is one area where Morrowind both succeeds, and fails. There are a TON of things you can pick up, but after a while, you spend a lot of time dealing with all that stuff.

I think Half-Life came the closest, with it's (fairly) realistic approach to ammo. Of course, it was modelled after "real" guns, but the concept is the same.

10) Make sure there are as many ways to "skin the cat" as possible. I prefer sneaking in through hidden doors and swimming through flooded tunnels. I use a sniper rifle almost exclusively in Deus-Ex. Others prefer to storm the castle. Still others prefer casting "invisible" and avoiding the fight altogether. Make layouts open enough to accomodate as many gaming styles as possible.

11) Try to make "realistic" levels. I have noticed that the more open-ended a game, the more realistic the levels are, because level layout is often used to enforce linearity. Clearly, you can use some judgement here, but ask yourself - if this were a real room, would it make sense for it to be laid out like this? Deus Ex came close, but there were a lot of WTF? moments in some areas.

12) Include reading material. I absolutely LOVE reading "in-game" Myst was a great example of this. I only wish the library had been more full. There were SO many books in Ultima to read, that you could spend hours just collecting, and reading, books! In fact, in one replay, I created my own library in UW2 by collecting one of each title, and storing them in the chest in the players room in the castle. Once I collected a bunch of them, I just read them for hours. This was the one rare bit of Daggerfall that made the game worth playing - you often had to READ books to complete quests. Alternately, you could look up recipes in books, or just get a feel for the history of Daggerfall.

Second to this are logs and diaries. Tell the story in the words of the inhabitants (dead or otherwise). The scraps of parchment in UW, and the emails in DeusEx were great. Done well, these elements add depth and richness to the game.

13) Avoid "stupid" quests. Yes, sometimes you have to run "step-n-fetchit" quests to gain a NPC's trust. These are "good" stupid quests. However, don't make them all stupid. Daggerfall did this, and it made the game irritatingly repetitive. I can't remember how many times I was given the "quest" of protecting some knucklehead in their house. *EVERY* time, the same three thugs would show up. Just once, it would have been nice if the thugs DIDN'T show up, or if there were a different number each time. Instead, the only thing that varied was the time of night (or morning).

Make subquests that are somewhat open-ended. Perhaps a NPC could supply the PC with a little extra cash whenever they stumble upon certain items? (many games got this right - but it is still a good idea) Alternately, quests could take a long time to complete - and in some cases, are completed along-side the main plot. Perhaps your character has to plunder churches along the way to a main plot point looking for all the bits to something. Baldur's Gate did this well with "multi-part" weapons, that you had to take to a smithy to get repaired.

There were few things more gratifying than finding the bits to some amazing weapon, and racing back to the smithy to have them assembled. Often, the items were just great items - but not required for anything really.

14) Avoid stupid guards and NPC's. Thief was a good example of this - if you hid the body, no one was any the wiser. If you were an idiot, and the body was discovered, the alarm was raised. NPC's should respond to their environment. If a guard sees his buddy get shot, he shouldn't just return to "ho hum" 5 minutes later. It should be HARDER to get past that guard for the rest of the night. (maybe he goes back to "ho hum" the next day?)

I can't tell you how disappointed I was in Deus Ex when I was able to take out all the guards in the statue of liberty by just waiting until they relaxed. To make things interesting, I tried to pop them so that they all fell beside each other - a neat little line of dead bodies. I know *I* wouldn't relax until I either discovered the intruder, or a day or two had passed.

15) Make sure there are plenty of surprises - but not stupid ones. I remember a Doom mod (the Alien TC) that was the first game to nearly make me wet myself. The whole first level, like the movie, was eerily empty. Then, when you were totally paranoid, an alien jumps from behind something and attacks you. I was playing in a MP game, and it scared all of us. It was great.

Other surprises would be unexpected NPC actions or backgrounds. Perhaps your trusted NPC buddy turns out to have a history. In Baldur's Gate II, each NPC that you could quest with had "history" - in some cases, such as Jahira, their history caught up with you in interesting ways. I will never forget storming the keep, only to face Jahira's former Harper buddies waiting to ambush us. THAT was interesting.

I really liked how your party selection alone could result in interesting quests - and romances in BG2, though simplistic save for one, really added a lot. NPC's shouldn't just be extra sword arms, they should really affect how the plot unrolls. Their "history" should haunt the party in ways that the player can't anticipate. For example, as I mentioned before, Yoshimo's history DEFINITELY came as a surprise when he turns on the party halfway through the game.

Add in things that the player has to look for - but that lead to intensely gratifying quests. The city of Athkatla was absolutely riddled with areas that you had to go out of your way to find, but often lead to the most amazing quests. For example, in one - if you happen to enter a certain tavern after having made a wish for "a most unique quest", you have an opportunity to go on a series of quests across nearly the entire know map (at the time) in a sequence of subquests. You start out looking for a musical gong, but in the process, end up taking out swamp monsters for a thief, only to end up searching for potions for a mage, and on and on. If you walk into the same bar before making that wish, the group turns on you, and you have to kill them all. I thought that was GREAT.

Additionally, proper intrigue can lead to gratifying surprises. In one table-style game I played, the DM had us working as "contractors" for a city's mayor. We were building up a huge stock-pile of gold, treasure, and property (we had our own house in the city towards the end) - but the entire time, the mayor (well, the DM) had something else in mind. We didn't realize it, but the DM was having us clear out the town for his "master", and he planned from the beginning to have us killed once we succeeded in emptying his master's rival's creations. As it happens, our party didn't realize this until it was too late - and the game ended with us all dead, or vampiric - leaving the mayor with all our property - and his master with no rivals.

These are just some ideas from having played so many RPG's - but they are, IMHO, fundamental to making a truly great game. I love the first person perspective - but I also love RPG's. I really wish games like Ultima Underworld had become the model instead of Quake/Doom - but that didn't happen. I would really like to see a game that continued that vein. (System Shock and SS2 came the closest, but no game, IMHO, has surpassed the pure joy I felt playing Ultima Underworld & UW2)