ZERO TO SIXTY - MUSINGS ON THE CANCERS BESETTING AMATEUR RPGS AND THOUGHTS ABOUT POTENTIAL CURES

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Good gods, this post is going to be way too long and there's no way anyone's going to read it. I was going to submit it as an article, but I'm not sure enough about any of it to set it in stone just yet. I need discussion and it's never going to happen if everyone is suffering from "TL:DR"itis. -_-

So with all this talk about getting people to play games made in the community lately, I started asking myself "Why do I so rarely find myself playing or even giving games made in the community a chance?" A lot of it is just habit--I've been in the community for several years at this point, and I learned pretty quickly what to expect from games (so much chaff that it's hard to make yourself search for the wheat), and it's made me jaded. That's my problem and I've got to deal with that myself, but perhaps part of the problem is in the way that amateurs think of the games they're making.

I've come up with some thoughts that I wanted to share, but mostly this is going to apply almost entirely to RPGs and games that are spiritually descended from RPGs. Also, this might come off as a little harsh. I don't mean it to be, but I need to get these thoughts out here to see whether addressing them helps to dispel the demons out there. If you disagree then please, respond and tell me why. This isn't meant to be an attack, it's supposed to be a call to arms. Or something.

RPGs are an interesting topic in game design because a big part of their fun depends on a Very Bad Thing, game design wise. You start off crippled, barely able to do anything. You can attack monsters with your weapon, and maybe you'll have a special attack that you can use once or twice per dungeon. Now the nature of RPGs leaves you well aware of the fact that in about ten to fifteen hours, you'll probably have all sorts of options available to you, and all sorts of strategic possibilities available to you. Just....not now.

Now in a commercial RPG, this is something that fans are willing to do. There's a budget behind this game and a cadre of programmers and game balancers who will, supposedly, ensure that the game will be fairly competent at some point, even if it's pretty mediocre. If nothing else, there will be pretty things to see on screen and hopefully the story will keep you chugging along despite the fairly lame beginnings.


...okay, now let's look at Indie RPGs. First off, if this game is going to be ten to fifteen hours, it better be amazing. We're talking Cave Story amazing here. So already we know that gameplay evolution is going to have to go faster or at least be more dramatic. But then another issue crops up that turns things on their heads. I have no reason to believe that you know what you're doing. You're not making money off of this, you don't have any credentials other than word of mouth, and you're working alone, or at most in a small group of people with similar lack of credentials.

There's no reason a person or group in that situation can't do something great (See: Cave Story), but there's no barrier to entry, and there's no editorial oversight. Anyone can do it. It's like Fanfiction, or Webcomics. Yeah, the best of the best are unwashed amateurs, but they make up only the top .01%. The rest of the unwashed amateurs are generally less enjoyable than some of the worst commercial stuff.

Okay, so what I'm getting at here is: I can't depend on your ability to make the gameplay evolve into something that will intrigue me more than what I'm seeing right now. I can't depend on you to intricately weave rising and falling tension in a competent narrative. I can't depend on your art to get better or your soundtrack to improve or for all the foreshadowing and symbolism to resolve itself in a satisfactory way.

In other words: you have very little time to win me over.

With amateur games I think there might be a need to hit the ground running, in terms of the experience available. You need to wow me immediately with something about your game--if you can't do it with gameplay it needs to be with graphics or sound. A lot of you swear by intense narrative, but it's very unlikely you'll be able to have a really impressive story before I lose interest.

Him has discussed the merits of episodic gaming for our little indie thing....small chunks of game that you can digest quickly and, if you enjoy them, move on to the next one. That's a great idea and I wholly support it....but I wonder if we shouldn't be looking at the episodic model in more ways than one: not just episodic games, but episodic television. Television has for years had to deal with short attention spans, a small amount of time to tell the story in, and maintaining arcs over entire seasons at a time. I think this might be exactly the sort of thing that indie RPG developers should be taking their cues from.

Short stories, told in a number of quick vignettes, that hit hard and keep the audience drawn in quickly. None of this "everything will make sense in a couple of hours" malarky. Allow the battle system to shine right out the gate. Give the player a reason to love the thing before the first episode is over. Because if you don't they might not make it to the second.

That's not to say there can't be evolving gameplay, because that's a core aspect of the RPG experience. But you can't start at no options and slowly give the player more. You need to start off with a decent number of options and give the player more.

Even if you're not working in an episodic format, it might be helpful to break the story up into episodes logically--you don't have to tell the player this, just think in terms of "This is when the first episode ends--have I given the player plenty of reason to move on to episode two? And to three after that?"

You should treat your game like you're fighting a losing battle against ADD. Because you are.

Amateur RPGs are a different beast than commercial ones. We need to think about them in a different way. It's something Him's been saying for a while now, so I'm just reiterating that point, but it's worth repeating. Don't model yourself after Squenix. In fact, maybe you shouldn't model yourself after anyone--as much as I love a few of the things done in the community, I can't think of anyone who got it 100% right on the RPG front. Our community has yet to produce its vunderkind. So there's an open position just begging for someone to fill it. But you're not going to fill it by trying to make the next Final Fantasy. You're going to fill it by doing something that no one else imagined, or at least something that no one else could accomplish.


As a post script, I'm going to add that the "Editorial Oversight" deal is playing on my mind still. It's an interesting issue and one that it might be interesting to figuring out how to deal with. Some way to reign in a creative person's devotion to their "vision" to make a game more playable for an audience. I can feel you artistic types pulling away from me even as I say that, but limitations on creativity can lead to some of the best work from creative types--it's a big part of why the original Star Wars trilogy was so much better than the prequel trilogy.
Ocean
Resident foodmonster
11006
Yeah, it's like those that want to have like "60+ hours" as a feature when they're presenting their games. I just get immediately turned off to that. I think better to develop a smaller game but that's fun to play rather than a huge one that's incredibly boring. I agree too with the more options in the beginning. Having a choice between Attack, 2 Potions (which you need to save for the boss or else you lose), and a 15 MP skill that does 2 damage more than attack when you have 20 MP isn't much fun!
halibabica
RMN's Official Reviewmonger
13703
Well, that was a fun read. :o

I agree with a lot of the points you've made, Shadowtext. But I don't know if there are really any surefire remedies for the problems you're talking about.

Because indie games don't have the same appeal as commercial ones, it takes a lot more for skeptical/jaded people to try them. It's like the creator has to prove what they're capable of before they can even hope of reaching a broader audience. Furthermore, the notoriety required for that isn't easy to come by. I've been making games for a few years now, and I'm still probably not even known as "that Pokemon Hunter guy."

I'm an optimist and a problem solver by nature, but I simply can't see any way around the things you've described. I hate to leave off with saying "that's the way it is," but...that's all I can come up with.
harmonic
It's like toothpicks against a tank
4120
It's sort of ironic that your huge TLDR-style rant includes the point about games that are too long and don't cater to everyone's tiny attention span.

But anyway, I guess I'll give you a few points, the only thing I didn't like was the overall tone of "you suck, and here's why, so stop aspiring to complete an actual long game like most RPGs are because you're the scum on the bottom of commercial developer's shoes. Just make a little tiny game that impresses me in the first 5 seconds."

What if I WANT to make a long JRPG-style game? (I did!) Should you automatically just scoff in disgust at the very idea of it and give me no chance? What if I want the pacing of my substantial RPG to start off relatively minimal, like most long RPGs? Don't mean to sound crabby, I just see this as another subtle example of armchair criticism of developers by non-developers.

To be honest, for the people who say "I hate long games," I don't think RPGs are for them. There are shorter games for lower attention span people called action games, try those!
kentona
I am tired of Earth. These people. I am tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives.
21237
Intros to commercial games are starting to bore me before I even start them.

I admit that I rarely play indie RM games, but mostly because I've lost all patience and time as I've grown old. I barely give myself time to load up an action arcade game and play for 5 mins. </excuse>

If the presentation is good and the game sounded remotely interesting, I'll stick with it, but I'm afraid most people lose me before I even attempt to download their game - and it's not really their fault. I don't take the time to play RM/indie games

I'm not jaded, just lazy.
Obviously, this is a really complicated issue, or else people would be making good games left and right.

You are absolutely right: when I play a game, you have very little time to win me over. But you're making a bad correlation between game length and "time to really get into it." The important point is the intro. It's the same for all entertainment media: the hook. I don't read many books because I'm too lazy to, but whenever I randomly pick up a book and read the first sentence, a lot of times I'm completely sucked in and read it cover to cover.

Movies. TV shows. Novels. Short stories. Games. All methods of storytelling and they all abide by the same general rules. You need to hit hard with something people want to see. With games, like movies, you're given a number of options here. Fast paced action scenes are a possibility, but other things like a really scenic intro movie, or simply just going straight into the gameplay works, too.


Which brings up the other problem. Not everyone even downloads games to try them at all (Example: me). That's part of the point of the whole "Play Something" idea, but there's more to it than that. Making a really good forum post to advertise your game is more important than it should be.
Here's the deal. No one considers what PRO games are like. People almost have this unreasonable expectations of amateur games, even greater than what they'd expect from PRO games. I think the reason is because we can influence the change, rather a PRO game isn't going to be changed unless they make a new version. I play older RPGs and the dialogue is simple and flimsy (mainly to get you from point to point) the battles are extremely repetitive and everything is real simple. But if you made an rpg maker game that was equivilent to say FF4, no one would play it. Everyone would be fed up that in the first dungeon both characters can only attack and jump. Also, people like Kentona and others who have little patience to play your game are the same people that will over advertise their game and plug it any chance they get. Why should I play yours if you're not going to play mine?
kentona
I am tired of Earth. These people. I am tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives.
21237
I am old and crotchity.

Part of the problem is, on the rare occassions when I have a free moment, I ask myself, "Should I play a new game, or work on my game?". I am in the middle of developing a project I am excited about and it tends to override my desire to play other games. I imagine that this is a common sentiment.

Also, managing this site takes a huge chunk of time. You'd be surprised. (And I don't even do much!)


EDIT:
What I'm trying to get across is, your primary audience is most likely comprised of people busy with their own projects. Everybody is more concerned with finishing their own work than playing yours.
author=kentona link=topic=1415.msg22075#msg22075 date=1214604678
Everybody is more concerned with finishing their own work than playing yours.

I partly agreed with that, I can't speak for anybody else, but after a while I get sick of staring at the editor, sometimes it's nice to play other peoples games, usually gaining some inspiration, motivation boost or just having some plain old fun.

I 100% agree with Harmonic here, I can usually spot a real gem of a game when I start playing it, it's not normally the fast paced in your face games, yet the ones that have a chance to build and grow on you, and that's my opinion of an RPG. To be a RPG fan, you have to be patience sometimes, you know the good stuffs coming eventually, why does it need to be thrown at you at the start, earn it by playing it.

People are never happy with indie games it seems, we're letting you play our games for free, our hearts and effort are going into this, why don't you just give it more that 10 minutes of your time? Why can't you give it the same respect as a commercial game? I don't want my game to be brushed to the side because my intro wasn't quite up to your standard. It's like judging a book by it's cover. If you took the time to download the game you're obviously interested in it, something about it caught your attention, but you're not willing to play longer than 10 minutes to find out what?

IMO as long as indie games still exist, so will this problem.
This isn't really about the players. Yes, the problem is that they suck and don't play games (this is why Play Something = good idea). But as a designer, you can't change that. So it's up to you to overcome the obstacle.

RPGs take time and love and all that may be true, and can work fine in a game. But you have to keep people interested from the start, and you usually do that by being an all-around good game designer and establishing your atmosphere properly.

But "Oh, just grit your teeth for now, it'll get good later!" is wrong, even if the pro games do it. If it's good later, it should be good now, too. There's no reason it can't. And this isn't about battles and options of strategy and whatever, I'm talking about everything: music, puzzles, where you put your treasure chests and what you have in them, character development, etc.
author=harmonic link=topic=1415.msg22038#msg22038 date=1214586525
the only thing I didn't like was the overall tone of "you suck, and here's why, so stop aspiring to complete an actual long game like most RPGs are because you're the scum on the bottom of commercial developer's shoes. Just make a little tiny game that impresses me in the first 5 seconds."

See, but that's exactly the problem. There's this....preconception in the community that making a tiny little game is the work of scum and unworthy of True Artists. And it's entirely wrong. We need to move past this prejudice against smaller, less ambitious projects as being pants.

Really, if anything, the concepts I'm dancing around here are about how to make games that are better than commercial games, in a very real sense. They entertain you from start to finish, hit hard and fast, and aren't stuck under the yoke of being forced to appeal to the mainstream demographics. There is so much more potential in this sort of model than in the Squenix model.

In a way, I think we're all still thinking of video games like we're in the 90's, or the early naughts. Casual games and inexpensive (in terms of money and time), episodic games are becoming more and more prevalent, especially with the growth of avenues like XBLA, WiiWare and Valve. We need to evolve, I think.


Also, yeah, Jabbo, I'm with you that it's also wrong when the pros do it. I tend to forgive them for it, but that doesn't make it good design by any means. I think Sirlin has addressed this topic before....if not, I know someone on Gamasutra did. You should never punish the player for playing your game just in the name of realism or drama. Even if things are meant to be scary or depressing, the experience needs to be enjoyable.

author=harmonic link=topic=1415.msg22038#msg22038 date=1214586525
It's sort of ironic that your huge TLDR-style rant includes the point about games that are too long and don't cater to everyone's tiny attention span.
Yeah, I was thinking the same thing when I did it. I have a tendency to write in a stream of consciousnes style, and it can make reading the things I write an endurance trial. It's one reason I'm such a huge proponent of minimizing lengthy dialogue and narration (and especially exposition) in games--I'm well aware of how easy it is to fall into the trap of writing too much because you feel like you've got so much to say. But I'm also aware of how you're shooting yourself in the foot when you do so.
kentona
I am tired of Earth. These people. I am tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives.
21237
At least there wasn't a Tropes link.
I wasn't criticizing you Kentona. I agree that we are so damn busy, since most of us in are college or post college. So playing games isn't a primary function and when we do play a game that we didn't pay for we feel no reason to finish it.
To be honest, a lot of the games just don't look all that good or interesting. I'm not a big fan of jRPGs, but I sincerely think the problem is a lack of knowledgeable interest in actual video game design and there seems to be this unconscious attitude that RPG design (what most of us do) is somehow a thing of its own that invloves things like cool chipsets and crafting compelling characters (which is complete baloney, btw).

We don't play each other's games because they are mostly all the same and they are mostly no fun, and we don't know how to make fun games because we've fooled ourselves into thinking we know what we're doing. This is because the greater part of us are (or used to be) 15 year olds who've fallen in love with the idea of being able to make Squeenix-style game.

Amateur RPG designers need to decide to be students of actual game design and stop trying to thrive off this circlejerk, "show and tell" culture. Maybe then, will the games we make be something more than what they are.
author=Ocean link=topic=1415.msg22002#msg22002 date=1214547415
Yeah, it's like those that want to have like "60+ hours" as a feature when they're presenting their games.

Yeah i know. The Laxius Power games did that. The third one was supposed to have like 200+ hours of gameplay and most people finished it in about 5 hours.
I think all of you forgot the most important thing on why we prefer professional games over indies ones. We paid money. When you go to the store, buy an RPG, come back home, then sit down to play it. Even if it has a terrible hook/intro or being even average game itself, you're still going to play it. Of course when you download an rm2k3 game from RM Network, you're not thinking: "OH SHIT I PAYED 50 BUCKS FOR THIS THING, BETTER BEAT IT." Now, go on a torrent/rom website and download an average but professional made RPG you never played before. Chances are, it might not win you over and you just end up not playing it ever and eventually putting it in the recycle bin. Of course if it were a real game sitting on your shelf you'll EVENTUALLY end up beating it and forcing yourself to like it.

And the remedy is simple, participate in the upcoming Play Something Day events, stop making your intros long and boring historic texts nobody wants to give a shit about until later in the game, and we have a better community!
I guess the challenge is dealing with the fact that it's REALLY hard to win over your audience. So I know a lot of people really want it be just like FF6/BREATH OF FIRE 65 but you have to condense some things to make it more accessible for your audience. I can recall many times when I was making my game, intentionally making things dumbed down or simple/fast so the audience wouldn't get bored.
WIP
I'm not comfortable with any idea that can't be expressed in the form of men's jewelry
11363
author=harmonic link=topic=1415.msg22038#msg22038 date=1214586525
What if I WANT to make a long JRPG-style game? (I did!) Should you automatically just scoff in disgust at the very idea of it and give me no chance? What if I want the pacing of my substantial RPG to start off relatively minimal, like most long RPGs? Don't mean to sound crabby, I just see this as another subtle example of armchair criticism of developers by non-developers.

To be honest, for the people who say "I hate long games," I don't think RPGs are for them. There are shorter games for lower attention span people called action games, try those!

I find overly long RPGs to have giant flaws in design. There's a difference in making a game with a large epic STORY and then making it 40+ hours long.

For the record, I think the perfect amount of time for an RPG is the 20-25 hour mark. It gives the developer and player AMPLE time to create whatever world they want. They don't have to resort to bullshit lengthening devices that pretty much all long RPGs use.

Also harmonic, I have plenty of attention span for games that are actually made well.


My issue with the majority of amateur RPGs is pretty much exactly what Blitzen has said. People don't think of the actual DESIGN of the game.
I think a lot of people begin playing an indie game (in this community) with the expectation that they will be providing some sort of feedback. With this in mind, I think people are ready to pick the game apart; even though they are acknowledging things they like about the game (which is usually just music, graphics, mapping, etc). They are actively looking for something about the game that they don't necessarily like, so that they can provide feedback as to how it can be approved. Commercial games don't suffer from this, like was mentioned earlier, as they're a finished product, and game companies don't care about our input.

Hard to say there's a cure for this, we're always going to have that degree of criticism when playing a colleague's game. Best we may be able to do is to try to go about the process of playing games a bit differently. Download and play a game because you want to play it. Read the dialogue, try to follow the story. Fight the battles, try using what abilities are available to you. Just play the game. Give it an hour. If you lose track of time, great, keep on going until you want to stop. Try not to give the game less than an hour though, allow more time for a game to capture your attention; within that time you will get a feel for how the story, characters, and abilities to use in battle will improve. When you're done playing, then see what you can remember about the game, and use that to write up a review and make suggestions to the author.

I'm not sure game length has anything to do with this. If a game is paced well from the get-go, and the gameplay is fun, game length shouldn't make a difference, the game is as long as necessary to complete the story. Probably not a good idea to add content just for the sake of lengthening a game (optional quests excluded, I'm talking mandatory content). Making shorter games just kinda makes sense when you factor in an amateur game-maker's experience with game design. I don't think Shadowtext meant to release games as episodes literally, just to try game design with the mindset that you need enough meat within any 30-minute time period in your game to keep players wanting more, be it adding skills to your character's repertoire to providing some good story progression. But I also think it's important not to give the farm away from the start, either. Pace it properly. Let the story be a reward in proportion with the amount of effort the player put forth to get to that point (i.e., if you have a big story scene planned, make the player work for it). Longer scenes will be welcomed if the player needs a break from a relatively tough gameplay session, but not after a fetch quest across town.
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