HUB VS ADVENTURE

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I've been thinking about the structure of RPGs lately and what it means to have an "adventure". World maps in RPGs act as a way to speed up or give the sense you are traveling a great distance, but also as sort of a level select. Sometimes there's a reason to revisit an older area and other times it's just a way for players to grab something they might have missed. However sometimes there's a "point of no return" where the story authorizes that a bunch of boulders fell behind you preventing access to a kingdom that accuses you of a crime that you didn't commit. So until the story says you can go back there you're constantly on the run going forward until you find an airship or something. This might not always be about structure so much as a sense of place or context. As someone who's lived in the same city all their life and travels very little, I suspect the need for adventure escapism correlates a lot with that.

There are some extremes to this. For instance an RPG that takes place at a school where you go on adventures outwardly in a hub and spokes format, meaning you go to new places but you always return to the school where your characters have an excuse to do social stuff. As opposed to having a series of hubs or towns you have one hub but many dungeons. Maybe there's just one big dungeon you keep retrying and retrying, like a tower of sorts. So games like Etrian Odyssey, Persona, and Rune Factory fit this bill. I would say this type of stuff usually benefits the designer since you can reuse the same locations that are already made and get away with it. As a player there's a benefit to getting acclimated to a place you've been to before, like IRL going to some appointment on a street you never been to before, but the street is next to a school you spent 5 years of your life so there's a feeling of doing something different in something familiar. Giving more meaning/history to an associated place.

The other extreme is the absolute point of no return, always going forward, rarely ever able to backtrack. RPGs (being exploration and progression based) doesn't always fully commit to this. The only RPG I can think of that commits to this idea is the RM game The Way. Not only does the gameplay forbid returning to previous areas but the lore centers around a religion where most characters are nomadic in nature and true to the title: "finding the way". There's no world map or any sense of a top down view of the world, the plot is also very much reliant on characters on the run or on the hunt, fates intertwining and all. I can think of many games that go this extreme, but rarely RPGs (or I don't play enough RPGs). Though a lot of RPGs do have a sense of merely going forward for forwards sake. From a designer standpoint, it can suck if a place is only experienced once throughout the whole playthrough and you're having to make constant set pieces but once you're done an area, you're done.

The alternative I guess is when time and space is warped. Like in Chrono Trigger you are technically in the same place, but time travel has changed it so much that it's hard to imagine it the same. Or maybe it's super in media res where a character is telling a story that has already happened but jumps forward and back through time so the consistency of where or who you are is different. So the game can potentially be very linear and straightforward but the context of everything happening may or may not be in the same place. I won't elaborate on this too much, but worth bringing up.

An example to further illustrate this is comparing Star Trek TNG to Star Trek Deep Space 9. In TNG the characters are constantly going to new worlds or new situations, the ship itself could be considered a hub in itself, but it is always moving and not always the focal environment. DS9 however takes place on a space station orbiting the planet Bajor, it mostly centers around the space station and reoccurring characters and themes revolve around the occupation of Bajor and it's history. However characters do occasionally go to neighboring planets. A wrench that DS9 throws into the mix is that there's a recently opened up wormhole that allows the characters to occasionally go to the other side of the galaxy and get that "adventure into the unknown" thrill that TNG very much enjoys. The writers put that there probably as a backup whenever they needed to spice things up and to center the plot around. Ultimately I prefer the format of TNG, but DS9 arguably has superior writing and characters (the quality likely having more to do with the writers being more experienced than the format though).

Star trek nerdom aside, what do you feel about the "sense of place" that RPGs give you as a player and a designer? I'm personally more likely to jump into a game that has some notion of forward going adventure and how well it executes that as far as pacing goes. A linear game like that can arguably feel more epic in scope than a given open world game IMO. As a designer I feel regulated to hub based games as they're smaller but also to get the most out of the game I'm making. Thoughts? Ideas I might be missing? Discuss! Whatever!
The always going forward linear style can often become exhausting if it starts to feel too much like "go here do this, now go here and fight this battle!" and your sort of just running from cutscene to cutscene. Still, I can see the appeal for player who really just want to experience the plot. Of course, the other extreme can become exhausting if it asks the player to tediously travel back and forth over the same areas. That can be relieved a bit with some form of fast travel.

I would define the structure of the earliest JRPGs as being about mastering the world as your traversal options increase. You start off in a small corner of the map and just getting to the next town over can be a dangerous trek. As you go, you get a spell that lets you teleport back to previously visited towns, you get the boat to reach new lands in any order (DQ3 turns into an open world treasure hunt at this point), and finally you get the airship/dragon/ramia/hot air balloon where you can freely travel anywhere without encounters. The dangerous large world you faced at the beginning has now become a little garden you have full control over. The player has conquered the map.

This is something you obviously lose with the point of no return linear style (and I'm including games that don't literally roadblock your way back but still give you no reason to go back despite allowing it). On the other hand, I do get what the OP means about linear games feeling more epic than something open world. With a linear game you can create smaller areas that give you a taste of different regions and cultures and it's easier to sell that their farther apart with fades between areas. That's mostly a problem in games where everything is meant to be the same scale especially in 3D games. Pixel art can sell abstraction better. I can believe most SNES RPGs have more towns than what's portrayed on the map. In Dragon Quest 8? Not so much. Though you also have the issue of zoomed world maps being less interesting to explore, but that's another topic.

My personal preference is for things to be more open than not. That doesn't mean I want everything to be open world - not at all - rather I just want some room to experiment, poke around, and have some choice over what I can tackle at the moment.

In regards to what defines an adventure, in D&D terms, your whole journey from starting the game to the end credits would be the campaign while the adventures would be the smaller episodes along the way. In Baldur's Gate, defeating Bhaal to avenge Gorion and save Sword Coast is the campaign, while going with Minsc to save his loved one in the Gnoll Fortress is an adventure. I've been thinking of the term in that way lately and I also feel those adventures don't exactly need much story either.

An adventure can be something as simple as stumbling on a fortress that the main story never asked you to go to. The enemies may be a little out of your range but not impossible. A player can become curious about what treasures are inside and decide to tackle the fortress now with a mixture of stealth and whatever tools they have at their disposal. In this way, the player might feel like they made their own side adventure inside your game (even though you technically created the circumstance intending to make them feel this way) because the motivation for doing so was entirely in their hands and not because a quest NPC or the main story told them to go there.

Of course not everything needs to be epic either. The Xenoblade remaster had that Future Connected episode and Pokemon had those Isle of Armor and Crown Tundra DLCs. Lately I've been fascinated by the design of these bonus episodes for creating mini-open worlds. People in general don't seem to like FC, but the pokemon DLC has gotten a fair amount of praise with people saying they wish the actual Sword & Shield were like it. So there's definitely an audience okay with the idea of an RPG having a tiny non-epic adventure in exchange for more freedom.
I'm quite fond of the hub. The idea of hanging out and learning to know the characters there. This is why I loved Harvest Moon even if the original technically didn't really have much depth to it it was still lovely to just hang out in that town.

There's also something about really learning an area well. I remember in San Andreas the starting neighbourhood was such that eventually it felt like "my own" and the sprawling driving around in other locations never felt nearly as homey as that original place. (GTA4 also did this fairly well, with that original street with the train above it that always felt like home)

Of course it takes a lot of work to create a hub world that feels deep enough and sometimes it might be easier to just run through a town where you only see the most surface level elements before chasing your targets. And even the most well-designed hub will feel stale eventually when you are grinding side quests or something that don't progress the hub story and it feels like every time you talk to any character they're still worried about tomorrow's weather.
Backwards_Cowboy
owned a Vita and WiiU. I know failure
1332
Trails of Cold Steel I and III combine the hub format with the "always going forward". Missed a chest in an area? You are locked out of the "open all chests" achievement for the rest of the game. You can not backtrack in those two entries; II and IV utilize a map that allows you to revisit certain destinations, with bonus bosses present in several areas. I'd say the linear nature of I and III detracted somewhat from my enjoyment of the games. There's something about being unable to revisit any previous areas that bothers me in RPGs, probably because my earlier experiences with RPGs were Pokemon and Tales of Symphonia, both of which allow significant backtracking and exploration. Oddly enough I also really liked Fire Emblem, which is mostly linear, but that's the general nature of SRPGs so it isn't as problematic; later entries in the series would introduce world maps that let you revisit locations indefinitely, a feature they removed in Three Houses where you are limited to skirmish battles to revisit past locations, which require you to use a precious free day to attempt.

I'm okay with hubs in open-world games, especially where there is a player home or where you can grow the hub, but not where exploration is conducted almost entirely through a series of menus. In modern 2D RPGs it feels really dated, since it requires very little effort compared to creating a world to explore. Makes sense for indie and low-budget RPGs, but if you have a multi-million dollar budget, I like to see more than a menu. Sure there will be plenty of players who don't want to have to walk to three different towns for specific item shop selections, but that's why fast travel was invented.
Sooz
They told me I was mad when I said I was going to create a spidertable. Who’s laughing now!!!
5331
For me, it all comes down to what the narrative calls for, at least as a player. What kind of atmosphere does a particular format lend to the story?

A hub offers a sense of home turf, somewhere safe(ish) that the player can go back to for R&R, and a stable location that's definitely the characters'. No matter where they go, how far afield, there'll always be this one familiar sanctuary they can return to. Things may change over the course of the game, but there will (usually) always be one place where the player can rely on on saving, refreshing health, and/or restocking.

A world map offers the feel of the traditional knight-errant- no place is home, or every place is. The world is filled with danger, but also with new sanctuaries, and the player can expect to find safety in settlements wherever they may go. It's a fairly optimistic view of the world overall, the idea that one can expect to get help (or at least find supplies) just about anywhere (that isn't a dungeon).

In an open world, the best narrative comes from watching different places change and develop over time, in response to the player's involvement. This is a pretty tricky needle to thread, since it essentially requires the dev to write multiple different stories that may or may not correspond to the main plot, while bearing in mind that the player may drop a story partway through or even skip it altogether. This difficulty level is why a lot of open world games have rather basic, blah plots.

With an open world, there's a less-focused sense of things- the characters may be looking to do a particular task or solve a mystery, but it's not really a big priority. There's a lot of exploration, and little distractions to check out, and overall there isn't a lot of tension, even if the story claims it's there. If you can put off fighting the King of All Darkness to help a kid find his lost dog, or see what's in those mysterious ruins, well, clearly he's not that important of a threat, is he?

A linear world is the easiest to write for, and the most focused-feeling style. Want to go back and check that first dungeon? TOO BAD! We've got shit to do! It's in the rear view and we're gonna go kick that Kind of All Darkness's ass! I personally prefer this from a narrative standpoint for most games- the "world's got its schedule, I've got mine" sense of open worlds never worked for me, even though it's fun to explore. Honestly, I feel that most RPGs would work best narratively with a completely linear layout, no world map, even if it means players might miss an achievement or piece of equipment.

The original Pokemon Rescue Team games did an interesting variation on this: Most of the games were a hub setup, but during one sequence of the characters being on the run, the hub was completely cut off, making the game almost completely linear and closed for several dungeons. It wasn't pulled off super gracefully, but it did give a fabulous sense of the change in dynamics and the tension of only having one way to go.

(Also, I love the idea of fucking with the player's sense of safety and permanence- what if that sanctuary you've been relying on suddenly disappears? WHAT THEN??? Good stuff.)

author=EtherPenguin
The always going forward linear style can often become exhausting if it starts to feel too much like "go here do this, now go here and fight this battle!" and your sort of just running from cutscene to cutscene. Still, I can see the appeal for player who really just want to experience the plot. Of course, the other extreme can become exhausting if it asks the player to tediously travel back and forth over the same areas. That can be relieved a bit with some form of fast travel.


Both those cases are more a problem of bad design, IMO. The former sounds like a writer relying on "this happened, then this happened" instead of "this happened, so this happened," and probably not allowing sequences to breathe. The latter seems like just bad layout and/or not enough changes. IMO, a good open world is basically a lot of levels that replace each other over time, rather than a set of levels that you revisit occasionally.
@Sooz

Could you talk more about an open world being lots of levels that you replace over time?

I was wondering if something simple like Zelda giving the player more tools to interact with the environment, the hookshot for instance, and opening up shortcuts would count as doing that. Or were you thinking more drastic changes to the environment as the game goes on?
Sooz
They told me I was mad when I said I was going to create a spidertable. Who’s laughing now!!!
5331
I was thinking the latter, mostly. I think a Zelda-style setup could work in an action game, but for the turn-based battle system setup of most RPGs, plodding over the same old terrain just to use the key item/skill to open up slightly new terrain (while dealing with constant anklebiters you've leveled past already) is more annoying than fun. (I can see a slight exception if you're letting the player see how far they've come, but that's also something to use sparingly, as the novelty wears off darn quickly.)

If you're having to revisit a level in an RPG, there should be a narrative reason for it, and a narrative payoff for it, both gamewise and plotwise.

The changes don't necessarily have to be drastic, just noticeable and complementary of the PCs' growth. (And the plot development.) This goes triple if the PCs are doing some kind of quest that affects the area over time. We're no longer living in a time of major memory limits, it's not as viable to just tell the player that the village is rich now!
author=EtherPenguin
@Sooz

Could you talk more about an open world being lots of levels that you replace over time?

I was wondering if something simple like Zelda giving the player more tools to interact with the environment, the hookshot for instance, and opening up shortcuts would count as doing that. Or were you thinking more drastic changes to the environment as the game goes on?

Personally I was thinking of Nier Automata when I read that.
Backwards_Cowboy
owned a Vita and WiiU. I know failure
1332
author=Sooz
plodding over the same old terrain just to use the key item/skill to open up slightly new terrain (while dealing with constant anklebiters you've leveled past already) is more annoying than fun.


Scaling enemy encounters can help with that. Rogue Galaxy, a mid PS2-era action JRPG, would cause you to start encountering high-level enemies in early-game locations after a certain plot point. You'll still encounter the low-level monsters, but only a small amount of the time, so you'll mostly find yourself fighting monsters on par with your own party. I found it out the hard way when I went back to grind enemy-specific kill counters for side-quest reasons, and ended up encountering enemies capable of 3HKO'ing some of my characters in the starting town. Revisiting old locations becomes necessary for some of the side quests later on, as well as the bonus achievements.
Sooz
They told me I was mad when I said I was going to create a spidertable. Who’s laughing now!!!
5331
author=Backwards_Cowboy
Scaling enemy encounters can help with that.


To an extent, yes, but in terms of narrative it leaves a lot to be desired. And, as a player, if I'm going to be fighting harder enemies, I'd still much rather be encountering them in a new and/or different area.

Scaling enemies is a solution, but it's a very clunky and obvious one that in most cases of revisiting areas feels like padding.
I struggle to find reasons to return to previous areas in traditional RPG's. The enemies are no challenge and offer little EXP. The treasure is outdated. Backtracking through an area I've already been to just isn't very exciting. Yeah, you can fix all those issues with level scaling, treasure scaling, adding overworld shortcuts etc, but why though? I'd much rather see new areas, fight against new enemies, find new stuff.
I've always gone with linear approaches that force the player forward to new places. The only reason you'd return to an older area would be for story reasons, when things have changed in that place.
author=Darken
The other extreme is the absolute point of no return, always going forward, rarely ever able to backtrack. RPGs (being exploration and progression based) doesn't always fully commit to this. The only RPG I can think of that commits to this idea is the RM game The Way.


My game does this. (°▽°)/
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