FIVE STRATEGIES FOR BETTER GAME-MAKING

Easy things I think everyone could do to make their games better.

I have played quite a few RPG Maker games. I have seen some of what works and some of what doesn’t work. I have seen a lot of people making the same mistakes over and over. But I’ve seen a few common traits in what I think are some of the better projects, and I’d like to share those ideas with all of you.

This is Solitayre’s Five Strategies For Better Game-making.


1. Love your characters

We live in a day and age where media is produced in soulless production lines, every facet of it engineered to appeal to the highest number of demographics possible. We have seen the same handful of tired characters paraded in front of us over and over again. The stoic, badass loner who has no friends and tells no one his feelings. The mysterious girl who holds the fate of the world in her hands. The extraordinarily pretty man with generically evil motives. That one really perky girl who everyone hates (you know the one.)

In this world of copy and paste, it is refreshing to see that a game actually has some kind of creative spark, or passion, instead of being overly-commercialized drivel created for profit, without any second thought.

One of the best ways to convey that spark is through your characters. Even if your game is not a story-heavy one, even if your character never says a word, you can usually tell if a developer really loves their characters or not. This is why I like the writing in a lot of “My First RTP Adventure” games than I do in some much more acclaimed titles by more experienced makers, or even people who are better writers on a technical level. You can tell when someone really likes the characters they’re writing for. They’ll have charm, wit, they’ll have a soul, they’ll feel more realistic, more three-dimensional, more alive. You can also tell when a writer is just going through the motions, when they don’t really care, when they’re just writing words with a face set attached. If you’re not engaged in writing a character, your audience probably isn’t going to be engaged by this character either.

Know your characters. Really know them. Spend some time thinking about your characters. Do you like any of them? If your characters aren’t interesting to you, do you think they’ll be interesting to anyone else?

Probably not.

Questions to ask yourself:

-Is this character’s personality obvious to anyone who isn’t me, the writer?
-Does this character ever do anything I find interesting, witty, or charming?
-Is the character’s personality conveyed through their actions and dialogue, or through some biography or monologue about their personal traits?
-Are these characters more to me than a block of stats and a description?



2 Make every word count.

You’ve probably heard this adage before. “Don’t use ten words when five will do, don’t use five when three will do.” While some of this can be ignored as a stylistic choice (some characters are wordier or more verbose than others) the real point of this saying is “don’t waste your reader’s time.” You must keep your reader/player engaged in what is going on in the plot, and that means being judicious with your words and cutscenes. Take into account what you’re writing, what this scene tells the player. Make sure what you’re saying here is actually going to be engaging or meaningful in some way. There is nothing worse for a player than having to sit through a really long, boring, irrelevant cutscene where someone is prattling about something the player doesn’t know or understand anything about. But don’t take my word for it, let’s look at an example.

Who knows who these guys are?



Those of you who wrenched backwards in abject horror probably recognized these guys as the Gazel Ministry of Xenogears. They were a group of all-knowing talking heads who were watching everything that was happening in the world. They are also very likely the worst characters to ever appear in any game. They are completely uninteresting, add nothing to the plot, talk in uselessly vague, cryptic nonsense, and they’ll keep interrupting your game over and over and over. Here’s an example of one of their conversations:

Gazel - Blue 3: A selfish creed. I question his faith.
Gazel - Red 2: We have no need for an organization of fanatics.
Gazel - Blue 2: We will seek what they will, it's their nature.
Gazel - Red 3: But, too much is undue, something must be done. A reprimand is necessary.
Gazel - Red 1: They are an expendable group. There is nothing we can do at this point.
Gazel - Blue 4: Yes, there is nothing more to gain from their continued existence.
Gazel - Blue 1: They've already done what we've required. Currently, we're in the process of 'dealing' with each area responsible.
Gazel - Blue 3: Stein is in charge of dealing with Aquty.
Gazel - Red 2: Bear in mind the need for a 'fitting solution'.
Gazel - Red 1: Moreover, Krelian is rather exorbitant. It's only a molecular machine. Why is he placing such importance on it?
Gazel - Blue 2: 'Humans' and 'machines', it's all the same to us.
Gazel - Blue 1: Yes, they are all the same

{Image and Transcript taken from a Let’s Play by a fellow called Karnegal}

Notice how their “refusal” to use “proper nouns” when talking about “things,” makes it “impossible” to understand what they’re talking about here. This is all they ever do. So what was the purpose of having them talk for five minutes if they were going to make it a very deliberate and concerted effort to not reveal anything? Well, there isn’t one. The Gazel Ministry adds nothing to the game, never reveals anything, and never has any real relevance to the plot. You can’t even distinguish one from another! Why were they in the game? Because they were key figures in the game world’s history and it became necessary to shoehorn them into the plot somehow. But my experience in the game suffered for their presence. Their scenes were boring and vague and I rolled my eyes every time I saw them come on screen. They probably shouldn’t have been in the game at all.

Your player is playing a game. If you’re going to interrupt their playing the game, it better be to tell them something. If a scene tells them nothing and adds nothing to the story, that scene should either be significantly revised or excised entirely.

Questions to ask yourself:

-Does this scene add to the plot at all?
-Does this scene add to the development of any characters, or the setting?
-Does this scene provide comic relief?
-Does the player have the proper context to understand what is being discussed?
-Is this scene uselessly vague or provide nearly no information?
-Does this scene ramble on about a lot of things the player probably isn’t interested in?
-Is this scene longer than it probably needs to be?


(Note: Please do not leave a comment telling me how the Gazel Ministry have a fascinating history as the ancestors of all mankind, spanning the 10,000 years of the Xenogears universe, and how they were key players in many events in the game’s backstory. I don’t care.)


3. Play up your strengths. Minimize your weaknesses.

People feel obligated to follow the classic genre formula. All RPGs need to have sweeping tales of heroism. They must all have lots and lots of battles. Long, epic dungeons. Mind-bending puzzles. Breath-taking graphics.

And chances are there is one or more of these things you’re probably not very good at making.

I see a lot of games where people who obviously aren’t invested in their dungeon design throwing gauntlets of long, poorly made dungeons into their game because they felt obligated to make their game longer, or to fulfill some expectation that there were going to be a lot of dungeons in the game because it is an RPG. They fill the game with hundreds of random encounters that they put little real thought into because that’s what RPGs do, right?

Just because RPGs do those things doesn’t mean it is necessarily a good idea for you to do those things in your RPG. Lots of people make RPGs for a lot of different reasons. The idea is to focus on the part of the game you want to present while minimizing elements that you aren’t going to spend much time on.

Chances are if you got into the RPG business, it’s because you wanted to tell your totally awesome RPG story. Well, okay. But if you tell your story but phone in your dungeon design, combat mechanics, and other elements of the game, you’re going to be left with an unappealing overall product. If you don’t care about dungeon design but make your player slog through twenty dungeons that you obviously put no real effort into but included out of obligation, chances are your player isn’t going to enjoy that part of your game. If you know you’re bad at doing something, don’t make your player spend all their time in that part of the game.

Again, this comes back to not wasting your player’s time. If your battles are all filler you put no thought into, don’t make random encounters happen every 3 steps. If you don’t like making dungeons and there’s nothing to do in any of them, don’t make them massive and don’t make them frequent. If you aren’t a good writer, don’t have reams of unskippable, bland cutscenes.

It may turn out you really don’t even want to make an RPG. RPGs are generally expected to have some element of all of the above things, but that might not be what you actually want to make. You might want to make a puzzle game with occasional dialogue, or a visual novel where dialogue is all there is. Or you might want to make a dungeon crawler with very little in the way of plot. It’s important to remember, however, that player’s need direction in what they’re doing. Don’t sacrifice logic.

By playing down the aspects of a game you aren’t as good at, and emphasizing the ones that you are good at, you can make your game much stronger as a whole.


Questions to ask yourself :

-Is this adding anything to the game or is it just there to waste the player’s time?
-Am I going to put enough work into this part of the game to make it worthwhile?
-Do I really even want to make this part or am I doing it out of obligation?

4. Stay focused.

It’s been said that all RPGs are becoming the same game over time. Looking over the landscape, sometimes it’s hard to deny this. And sometimes it’s painful to watch it happen. I have watched many interesting, insular plots about one character and their personal struggles be derailed in order to focus on much less interesting, more generic and mainstream ones about killing God. Chances are killing God is going to be a lot less interesting than whatever the characters were doing before.

Don’t be afraid to defy these conventions. Not every single conflict needs to be cosmic in scale. The conflicts between humans tend to be a lot more interesting than conflicts between humans and incarnated evil. A story about a tyrannical king and the brave men and women who rebel against him is probably going to be a lot more interesting if it turns out the King isn’t actually plotting to release a demon lord with generically evil motives who will kill said king on the spot and take over his role as villain. A story with only one group of characters in conflicts, with fewer locations and events, is likely to be far superior to some arbitrary escalation to a world-spanning conflict with a nigh-omnipotent demigod antagonist.

You might call this the “Final Fantasy Syndrome” since this problem is so prevalent in their games. Near the end you can always count on some never mentioned superbeing to fall from the sky to present a final challenge. But these final villains are never as interesting as the primary antagonists. Zemus isn’t nearly as interesting as Golbez. Ultimecia is far less interesting than Edea. Which villains do everyone like better? Kefka and Sephiroth, because these two are presented as central antagonists and remain so throughout the game. But I personally thought stopping Sephiroth’s plot to genocide the planet was a lot less compelling than the party’s conflict with Shinra earlier in the game.

But there are other ways to lose focus, too. Maybe you’ve built this huge world and demand that your player know absolutely everything about it? This might be called the “Tolkien Syndrome” where the plight and development of the characters take a backseat to the author/creator showing off how cool their world is. World-building can be a lot of fun, and there’s a lot to be said about a legitimately interesting and well-developed setting, but chances are your player doesn’t have enough context to appreciate all your brilliant nuances. Focus on what your player actually needs to know about this world in order to proceed. They probably don’t need to know every detail about some giant war fought a gazillion years ago, especially if said war has absolutely no bearing on anything currently happening in the plot. If you want, feel free to include such backstory in the game as optional supplementary material, but never shove it in the player’s face if they don’t need to know it to proceed.

Keep your plot focused and simple. Don’t feel compelled to stray from the central elements in the story. Just because you created an entire world doesn’t mean you have to use every part of it or that the world’s Satan-figure needs to be the final villain.

Questions to ask yourself:

-Does the player really need to know this for any reason?
-Will this plot twist completely change the context and scope of the storyline?
-If so, does it take it in a more interesting direction, or a more generic one?

5. Play other peoples’ games.

This is very important. Chances are you’ll have no idea what RPG Maker or an amateur maker like yourself is really capable of unless you play other peoples’ games and see what they have managed to do. If you just tell yourself that no one else’s games are worth your time, you’re missing out on an enormous amount of inspiration. You can not only learn from what they did right, but from what they did wrong.

Posts

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Despite
When the going gets tough, go fuck yourself.
1317
This is a good article, lots of good pointers to keep in mind when planning out your game.

Good job soli, oh and:

The Gazel Ministry have a fascinating history as the ancestors of all mankind, spanning the 10,000 years of the Xenogears universe, and they were key players in many events in the game's backstory.
Feld is going to murder you when he sees you talking shit about Xenogears.

Good article, by the way.
TFT
WHOA wow wow. two tails? that is a sexy idea...
366
w..oah, i hope you apply all of this to your game.
I would like to add to #1. Love your characters. AND THEN KILL YOUR DARLINGS MUAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

Personally I find #2 the hardest to avoid. Sometimes it's just so fun to have those two or three dark silhouettes talking cryptically about what just happened or what is going to happen in the game's plot. For example, although they're sort of annoying in this very respect, the Auditors in the Discworld series. They are exactly this, and they're probably so much fun to write.

1: They're on their way
2: First obstacle passed. Could they be the ones looked for?
3: Does anyone want some tea?
1: They show promise but it cannot be known yet.
2: That's what the tests were made for.
3: I have scones too.
2: I'll have two sugars in mine.
This was a great read, well written, well thought out and all around great points. I think it does you a great service as well, Solitayre, in giving all of your reviews that much more weight with this type of insight behind them.
I agree with all this but especially #1. The only generic RM2k3 game I actually enjoyed playing and found memorable was one called I think Love And War. It was all RTP iirc and there was nothing groundbreaking in terms of writing or design or whatever but the creator had an obvious affection for the game and the characters in it which I found charming. One of the things that popped out at me from watching those Let's Try videos is how bombastic some of the games were. They'd hit you over the head with dramatic cutscenes and mountain fights and portentious text and I guess hope you were impressed enough to follow up on it. I think trying to charm the player is much more effective than trying to awe them (and easier, for amateur game designers working with ripped materials etc). I realise that talking about the importance of charm makes me sound like an aging gigolo but you know what I mean.

I think the second one is important mainly because of the RPG Maker message box system. Like uh movies and comics and books and so on can get away with more "fluff"/mood-setting/digressive stuff because I think they have a lot more room to differentiate between the digressive conversations and the important ones. In RM games all the information, important or not, is given the same way through little default text boxes and sprite things walking around. The example I'm thinking of is that Let's Try game with the uh scientists in the lab going
"Press button"
"button pressed"
"increase leg pump x200"
"pump imcreased"
etc. which in a movie or something could just be background noise to show these guys mean business but in a game means clicking through a stack of boxes with absolutely no actual information. So I guess it does demand brevity in a way.
Sated
puking up frothing vitriolic sarcastic spittle
8002
You make the assumption that RPGs are story-based, which I don't think has to be the case. Points 1 and 2 are probably meaningless if you're making a dungeon-crawler, for example, and I certainly didn't get into RM* "because (I) wanted to tell (my) totally awesome RPG story".

Still, these are really good pointers for those who do want to create a story-based RPG.
Even in dungeon crawlers it's good to have some life put into the main characters. This can add more enjoyment to the game.

Good article, covers good ideas.
#5 is true as hell. Many people at Polish community (often kids 10-15 yrs old) belive that they'll make clone of their favourite "Gothic" or something. NO, RPG Maker is not capable of making such games! Play other RM-games and you'll see what can you do. That's the solution, not brainlessly copying commercial productions! It's USELESS.
My name is Calunio, and I approve of this message.
Ciel
an aristocrat of rpgmaker culture
298
they do have a purpose in the plot and that is -SPOILERS FOR 13 YEAR OLD VIDEOGAME- the incredible satisfaction one experiences when krelian walks in and murders them all -SPOILERS FOR ANCIENT VIDEOGAME-
Puddor
if squallbutts was a misao category i'd win every damn year
3997
I always thought I was being stupid when I went into great detail to not only analyze the bigger picture of my characters but the smaller details too. And not just my fan-games, I love just about every character I've made because...well, because. I am God and I love my creations, even though I make their lives horrible :3

But I guess it's not as stupid as I thought.

FOCUS. Love it. I love this article, Soli <3
comment=42887
You make the assumption that RPGs are story-based, which I don't think has to be the case. Points 1 and 2 are probably meaningless if you're making a dungeon-crawler, for example, and I certainly didn't get into RM* "because (I) wanted to tell (my) totally awesome RPG story".

Still, these are really good pointers for those who do want to create a story-based RPG.

Point 1 can apply to NPCs as well and most dungeon crawlers does have important or semi-important NPCs. I don't think it 's meaningless unless your game is absolutely devoid of characters with personalities.
This is good stuff. I wish I saw more people adhere to number 1, characterization is so important for any kind of successful story-driven project.

I struggle with number 2 sometimes - I tend to write a lot of less-than-crucial conversations between characters mostly to develop them a little at a time. I can get carried away with the backstory, too. I do hope I've never written anything as vague and pointless as those Xenogears guys, though.
comment=42873
I would like to add to #1. Love your characters. AND THEN KILL YOUR DARLINGS MUAHAHAHAHAHAHA.


THIS
1. make it fun to play.
2. don't waste people's time with story (its a game, not a book)
3. let people get far before killing them, like 2 hours into the game
4. zero downtime between deaths, the less time between a death and reloading the more people continue to play
5. does there really need to be 5?
Easier said then done, but SOLID advice!
DE
Self-proclaimed master of idling
1088
People who criticize Gazel Ministry don't really get it.

Really.

You have to watch Neon Genesis Evangelion (aka Xenogears the Movie) to get the whole picture.
Solitayre
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
17302
Yes, you should watch an entirely unrelated work in a completely different medium to fully understand the characters in this game.

I've seen all of NGE, and played all of Xenogears, and I am not making even the vaguest connection between the Gazel Ministry and anything in that anime.
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