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.

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xenogears, the only game to feature a character annoying enough to make me stop playing it outright

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.

hi5 soli
Oh come on no delete button (or at least edit button) on article comments? 8|
#5 is very very true. A lot of my ideas and "systems" I have come up with in RPG Maker is mostly due to playing other community games and thinking "could I do something like that?", but once I start, I begin going off on my own tangent, making something completely different (in a good way) than what I began with. Playing other's games also showed me over the years how to use some RPG Maker functions that I had no idea how to use or even existed.

Great article, Solitayre. :)
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.”


This is a very good point. For example, Mario almost never says a word, but he doesn't need to.

Every gamer out there knows who he is, yet all he ever says is "Hoo! hoo hoo! YAHOO!", "Okey dokey!", and such.
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.”


This is a very good point. For example, Mario almost never says a word, but he doesn't need to.

Every gamer out there knows who he is, yet all he ever says is "Hoo! hoo hoo! YAHOO!", "Okey dokey!", and such.
slash
APATHY IS FOR COWARDS
4011
Shinra made for a way more badass villain than Sephiroth ever did.

You've summed up a lot of points I've realized very recently, Solitayre, especially the remark about not killing god (heh). Number 3 is something I'll have to take a look at soon and hopefully not trash too much of my own work.
I think what people may find boring in dialog is really a matter of opinion. I enjoyed reading that bit of Gazel Ministry dialog, you used as an example.
For my friend that just started using RPG maker for the first time, I recommended this article because you said many things that I agree with wholeheartedly.

But on #3, I have a question. What if you suck at mapping? You're on a map all the time in an RPG, be it in a cutscene or in a dungeon. I have such a hard time with making interesting maps that it's very frustrating. It's true, though, I do not like designing dungeons, which is why mine are usually kept very short and sweet. Okay, we're in a cave, we get what we came for, okay, next point, please. *shrug* I get complaints because my dungeons are apparently too short. But I just don't like making them and I know that will show in my work.
For my friend that just started using RPG maker for the first time, I recommended this article because you said many things that I agree with wholeheartedly.

But on #3, I have a question. What if you suck at mapping? You're on a map all the time in an RPG, be it in a cutscene or in a dungeon. I have such a hard time with making interesting maps that it's very frustrating. It's true, though, I do not like designing dungeons, which is why mine are usually kept very short and sweet. Okay, we're in a cave, we get what we came for, okay, next point, please. *shrug* I get complaints because my dungeons are apparently too short. But I just don't like making them and I know that will show in my work.
Solitayre
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
18257
Really the only way to get better at mapping is practice. but I don't think mapping is as important as much of this community makes it out to be. Focus on functionality first and make it pretty afterwards. Keep things small (empty space is boring and takes a long time to traverse.) Put obvious cues for things you can interact with, doors, chests, etc. Make sure the player knows what they can and can't do. Don't worry about making things long, quality over quantity. There are probably other people who can give better advice than I, though.
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.


Just quoting this because something similar to this appeared in Fable 3 (with the same failness as you mentioned). Slightly different then the example, but it fits. And said super-villian (The Creeper) makes Cloud N' Candy look badass.
I totally agree with the topics. Especially the one about Tolkien's brilliant world. If you don't have a good base of knowledge about his mythology, you will never understand how amazing everything is in his work.

A bit like Skyrim. You are thrown into a world where you have to deal with imperials, stormcloaks, a dragon menace, a land full of history (not to mention the guilds and the background history from previous games).

I mean, both examples are fantastic and immersive enough for me! But did I had to do my homework outside the books and games? Oh boy! Sure did.
Hey – whadda know, an “oldie article!!!”

(What, you guys running out of ideas for what to feature up ALREADY? Pfft...!!!)

I remember reading this a few years back and, taking the opportunity to skim through it again a second time, this is not only a very well-informed article but something that EVERYONE should at least read once -- especially if you’re in the process of making a role playing game or something of that sort.

All the five points that are presented here is something I tend to think about a lot whenever I’m in the process of making a game. For example, when it comes to “loving your characters,” a lot of them that I use are inspired from people that I know from work, school and throughout my entire life, and I try my very best to implement those particular traits into the games themselves. Not only does this print a presentable picture about these characters and make them feel more “unique” to some because they’re ACTUALLY based on real life people, but it also feels like some of those very same individuals that are very dear to me are right there beside me, working along with me in my endeavourers. Whenever I see them or think about these characters, I remember who originally inspired them and think of the good times that I had back then with them.

And same with trying to “staying focus,” there is no need to have the final confrontation take place on a giant floating spaceship fighting the very embodiment of Jesus to wrap up the game. Sometimes, the final boss could be a battle between a former party member who’s been pulling the strings throughout the entire beginning or against a boss where, necessarily, the fate of the world doesn’t COMPLETELY hold in the balance, meaning the party could still lose and things would only be out of balance…a little.

And, yeah – always, ALWAYS at least go out of your way to play other people’s games (or some of your older ones) to get some newer / sequel / prequels / spinoff ideas or find the type of flaws that might stand out in other games that you could probably avoid for your own.

I always love readying your articles, Solitayre; I wish you were MY teacher in high school. ^^

(I would definitely throw spitball’s at you.)
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