In this article Brickroad discusses ways to strengthen your game by making gameplay more consistent.

There is a lot of hooplah throughout the various RPGMaker communities about consistency in RPGMaker games. Usually, however, this means graphical or musical consistency: how well the graphics and music in the game mesh. Since graphics and music almost always come from a wide variety of sources, it is common to see a game that looks or sounds mismatched. While this is a serious concern, it is not the subject of this article. This article deals primarily with gameplay consistency.

Gameplay consistency means, in shortest terms, that your game has a set of rules from which it does not deviate. These rules might take the form of all-encompassing skill acquisition systems, or they might take less noticable forms such as subtle dungeon details. Some forms of gameplay consistency are so subtle, in fact, that the player will never even notice them -- and that's exactly why they are so important. A perfectly consistent game is one in which the gameplay is so seamless the player never notices that any thought has been put into it.

Which Button Does What?

The first set of rules a player will notice when loading up a new game for the first time is its control scheme. Typically an RPG will have a "yes" button and a "no" button. Learning these two buttons is the first thing a new player will probably do in a game, even before she gets past the title screen. There is the understanding that the "yes" and "no" buttons will be the same throughout the entire game. Envision a game that is not consistent with its use with these two important buttons, and you'll envision a game that will be frusterating, if not impossible, to play.

I bought a Nintendo Gamecube in 2001 when the system first came out. Yet even a year or more later I still had trouble telling the X and Y buttons apart. They're similar-shaped buttons on the face of the controller; one is to the right of the main A button and one is just above it. In fact, I probably couldn't tell you which is which without spinning my chair around and grabbing my Gamecube controller for reference. And yet, I never had any problems playing Gamecube games... not even games that had unique functions for these two buttons. The reason is, as you play a game, you don't consciously hit the X or Y buttons. What you're doing is hitting the "Map" button or the "Look" button or the "Jump" button. I would be playing a game and my brain would be wired to think, okay, if I move my thumb in this manner it will open my map. I did not have an X button. I had a Map Button.

That seems like common sense, of course, but let's take it a step further. In RPGs you usually don't have a bunch of buttons that do a variety of things. You usually have one universal "Action" button that will do something different depending on what situation you're in. If you're standing next to and facing an NPC, you will expect that "Action" button to mean "talk to this NPC". If you're standing in front of a treasure box, you will expect your "Action" button to mean "open this treasure box". Standing next to a bookshelf you would expect "examine the books on this shelf".

Let's look at what happens when a game breaks its own rules. Say you have a large castle full of closed doors. The player cannot walk through a closed door, obviously; first she will have to open it. You decide to cause the door to open when the player pushes against it; that is, it automatically opens when the player tries to walk through it. Some doors in this castle, however, must be opened "manually". That is, the player needs to stop in front of it and push the "Action" button. Since you've already trained the player to open doors one way, she'll be confused by the new way. A player might very realistically try to walk through a door, see that it doesn't open the same way as all doors they've found up to that point, and decide the door is locked.

In other words, if you decide that doors in your game open "automatically", they had better all open automatically. One of the rules in your game is "doors open for you automatically". Once the player learns that rule, it's one less thing she has to worry about.

Let's say, though, that you really do want the doors in this castle to all be locked. So obviously they won't open when the player tries to walk through them, like doors elsewhere in the world. What's more, say you want a few of the doors to be unlocked, but blocked in some other way. How can you accomplish this without breaking consistency? An obvious way might just to be to attach messages to the un-openable doors. "This door is locked." "This door won't open." A more elegant solution might be to use sound effects; a "click click" noise for a locked door, a "thump thump" noise for one that's blocked. If you use these sound effects consistently, and don't use them throughout the rest of the game, what you're really doing is teaching your player some new rules. "Locked doors sound like click click, blocked ones sound like thump thump."

The applications for this are very subtle, but powerful. In the first dungeon, you have a locked door. It sounds like click click. The solution to the puzzle is to find a key, naturally. Next time you use a locked door, you can make the puzzle more complex. Since the player already knows she's looking for a key, you can hide the key in a less obvious place. And if the door she's trying to get through goes thump thump she knows she isn't looking for a key at all. The trick is to be consistent, since otherwise the player will have to be re-trained every single time you decide to use a locked door.

A Switch Is a Switch... Isn't It?

Another ruleset your game will have will be its environmental ruleset. No good RPG dungeon is without switches, rocks to push, treasure boxes, etc. It's part of what makes dungeons so great. However, if the player doesn't know what she's looking at is a switch, or a rock, or a box, or what, you have a problem.

The easiest way to promote this kind of consistency, of course, is decide what sprite you want to use for what piece and use it consistently throughout the game. If you decide to use a boulder as a push-able obstacle in one dungeon, but not in the next, you are confusing the player. It's likely the player will be thinking "This type of blocked moved in the last dungeon... what do I have to do to get it to move in this one?" The opposite is also a problem: if you've been using crates as background scenery in the past twelve towns, the player will never know that this new crate needs to be pushed around, or can be broken, or opened, or jumped on, or otherwise interacted with in any way.

So, having one sprite per object type really goes a long way to keeping consistency inside dungeon maps. Consider two types of switches: the first type is a typical "flip switch", which you press to make something happen. The other is a "pressure switch" which will only make something happen so long as you keep it pressed down. If you use a different graphic for each one, and stick to those two graphics exclusively when creating switches in dungeons, the player will always know what she needs to do with each one.

Once the player is sure elements of a dungeon will behave a certain way, you can begin using those elements as building blocks in a puzzle rather than as the puzzle themselves. Once a player knows that a pressure switch is always a pressure switch, you know that when she sees one in your dungeon her first thought will be to look for something to hold it down with. In this way you can create much more powerful dungeon puzzles than simply "use this key in this door".

Yes, In Combat, Too!

Players will spend a lot of time in combat. It's a side-effect of the genre. And no matter how awesome or interesting your battle system is, combat will get tiresome. It's fine to devise a complex system that forces the player to experiment constantly, but you can do this more effectively if the player can make some safe assumptions beforehand.

Consider, for instance, using palette-swapped enemy sprites throughout your game. Yes ripped resources are practically infinite and you can have a brand new enemy sprite for every single monster in every dungeon, but then the player has to go back to square one every time she meets a new foe. However, if you use a goblin sprite in the first dungeon and the player learns goblins are weak to ice magic, you can make a more powerful goblin in a later dungeon and, bing!, the player will assume this new one is weak to ice magic as well. Throwing the player a bone like this is a good idea once in a while.

Careful attention needs to be paid to elemental and status weaknesses. If one dragon-type monster is weak to a certain attack, consider making all dragons weak to that attack. If an NPC tells the heroes that undead monsters are weak to fire, be very certain that every undead monster you introduce is weak to fire. Do this early and often, and your player will see that monsters in your game have weak spots they can exploit. Then they will be far more open to experimentation later, enabling you to get away with tougher and trickier monsters.

Another very subtle way to make combat consistent, especially in a game with many PCs, is to ensure all the heroes have roughly equal combat options. It's pretty standard for all the heroes to have Attack, Item and Flee commands, and it can be tempting to give every character a variety of special commands as well. However, this raises the learning curve of each new character drastically.

Final Fantasy 6 has perhaps the best example of this I can think of. The game features a huge cast, many of whom are unique in what they can do and what abilities they can use. With only three exceptions, however, each character has the same commands: Attack, Magic, (special) and Item. Experimentation is still important, but the player is sure that each hero has only one special command to toy with, instead of many. In fact, the player can usually tell whether or not they like a new character after only a single battle, once they figure out what the new command does.

It's definately okay to throw curveballs at the player to keep them on their toes, but allowing them to learn a few basic rules of combat can help them become acquainted with your game on a level beyond "hammer attack until the monsters are all dead". Even something so simple as "all red monsters are weak to water magic" can achieve this powerful effect.

The Broken Record Effect

Consistency isn't only necessary to create solid gameplay -- it can also enhance other areas of your game. Consider having a "stock" treasure box message for example. Instead of typing "You get a Long Sword" on one box and "Found 500 gold" on another, try a streamlined message that can be used on every box in the game. "Found: Long Sword." "Found: 500 gold." It's a comforting feeling opening a treasure box and knowing you'll see a familiar message with a new toy attached. Gameplay isn't necessarily enhanced, but it does add a layer of professionalism for very little effort.

Touching lightly again on resources, it can be tempting to have brand new music for every area in your game. After all, midi files are virtually infinite. However, re-using music can add depth to your game because the player will begin to associate with that music. If there are two cave dungeons, and both caves use the same music, the player gets a sense of "this is what a cave sounds like". Little things like this will help reinforce the idea that, even though the player has entered a new area, it will behave similarly to an area she's already been to.

The idea is to do the same thing, over and over. If you use the same tree as background scenery, the player will begin to learn what is background scenery on your maps and what isn't. She can focus on less familiar aspects of the map instead. (And of course you can use this to fake the player out too -- after fifty of the same tree, the player is less likely to find the treasure box hidden behind the fifty-first.)

Establishing the Premise

Okay, so you've decided on a few aspects of your game which you'd like to be completely consistent, all the way through... but there's still the problem of the first case. You need to open your player up to the idea that they'll be able to do something in the first place, before you can establish that she'll be doing it the entire game.

In Golden Sun 2, you can search everything for items. Boxes, pots, shelves, urns... you name it. But with all that background scenery, how is the player supposed to know anything is searchable at all? It uses a particularly ingenius but very subtle trick to accomplish this goal. In the first town there is a single pot sitting on at the top of a staircase at the north edge of town. Other than the pot, it is a dead end. Inside the pot is an Herb, which isn't a particularly great treasure. Of course, the real treasure is the knowledge that in Golden Sun 2, pots hide items. Once the player finds this herb (and she will, since once you climb those stairs there's nothing to do but check the single pot at the top of them) she learns that she had better check every pot she comes across. And if pots, why not other boxes, shelves and urns? Over the course of the game this yeilds loads of treasure, money and other useful goodies.

The best part is, when you search a "searchable" object that happens to be empty, the game tells you so. "Felix searched the box. It was empty." It may sound annoying to get a message box for each empty area you look, but what the game is really telling you is "Keep at it! Some of these boxes have good stuff in them!" And it's right. A diligent treasure hunter in Golden Sun 2 will turn up mountains of good stuff, all because the game laid out the groundwork to hunt for treasure and was consistent in delivering feedback, even if negative.

So What Does It All Mean...?

On its face it looks like consistency means "do the same thing over and over". And that sounds boring.

But really what it means is that you should pay attention to what you're teaching the player. Think of each challenge in your game, every dungeon and boss fight and minigame, as its own unique structure. Now, which is the better game: one that tries to give you an entirely new structure every single time you turn around, forcing to learn how each new one will work? Or one that first shows you the individual blocks the structures are built with, and then goes on to use those blocks in unique ways?

There are dozens and dozens of puzzles in each Zelda game that requires creative use of the bow to solve, but there's only one way to fire the bow. Establish the rules first, and then build your game around the rules. That's what gameplay consistency is all about.


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I just realized after rereading this that you refered to the player as a 'she' haha. Well anyway, good article I think people should pay attention to alot of stuff like this.
It's funny that you wrote an article that comprises of this element of RPG creation. Once, a long time ago, there was a great RPG Maker 2000 game that allowed the player to jump. You didn't have to press a button---just walk up to an object that was one level above you, and you could scale it.

From that object, you could

  • Scale to an object one level above that
  • Walk on the same plane/level you were on
  • Drop to a level below that

And it was great! But, a little while after, I guess the creator got tired of coding jumpable objects, and mid-way through the game, nothing was jumpable anymore. And I was trying to scale something to see if there was a treasure on top of some boxes, and it was mysteriously removed from the game...

Ultimately, very frustrating. Why implement it at all if you weren't going to follow through?
It might be weird to make a post on an old article,since its the first but really interesting,never thought of the gameplay structure and the smallest difference.
Very good article!

As the author said, lack of consistency will break the immersion, which is one of the ultimate goals of the game. Nowadays there are even some commercial games which do a bad job of consistency. This usually shouts "un-professionalism" and gives generally bad impression.

Basically a lot of other areas of life have some sort of a Standard which is implied by law or similar order. This helps consistency on many levels. For example - the elevators, the stairs high and wideness, the roundabouts, the bridges and so on.
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