[In which I discuss the development dangers of cities in RPGS and reflect on Gamescom 2012]
I started writing this entry as I was booting up for the last day of Gamescom 2012. This edition is one I’ll remember for the thievery going on at our booth and the quality time I spent in a hospital where I learnt that that bacteria don’t care about you being on a deadline (that’s what resulted in the impressively bandaged finger in the pictures of me @ Gamescom)
For the rest, I had a big a deja vu feeling.
If somebody would’ve told me that I was at E3 instead of Gamescom, I would’ve believed them. In one sentence, my life at this show boiled down to spending almost all of my time at the Larian booth, not seeing anything from the show, drinking too much in the evenings and sleeping so little I felt as if my IQ dropped below zero.
I’m not going to complain though, because we won best RPG of the show with Divinity: Original Sin on JeuxVideo.com and were nominated best strategy game with Divinity Dragon Commander by Destructoid. For a small studio like us, that’s tangible success. That said, I don’t want to talk about trade show life again because I’ve done that already here and instead wanted to share some afterthoughts on a conversation I had at the show with a fellow RPG developer regarding making Skyrim like RPGs.
Said developer has been doing the rounds with a video of a very ambitious RPG that clearly wants to be a Skyrim killer. Now I’m no big fan of these enormous systemic simulations, preferring instead handcrafted dense worlds with rich backstory, but I recognize that if done well and coupled to a powerful character development system, games like Skyrim can offer players a lot of fun. The logistics of making an RPG being an active topic of interest for me, it was therefore with real interest that I queried about the size of his world because games like this are reknown for being large.
Predictably he told me that he planned on having several large areas ,with one area typically containing a few cities and several villages, linked by realistic environments. At the word ‘cities’ I cringed, not because I don’t like cities in RPGs, I do, but because of the work involved in making them fun, and also because I know what they lead to development wise.
I couldn’t help myself and immediately projected the following scenario in my mind: Game will be late, will cost much more than he’s thinking, will require many iterations of the storylines as stuff gets cut, will show scars as a result of the cutting, will probably be pretty unbalanced and all of these things together might mean the game never gets made, which would be a pity because it looks like there’s a passionate nice team working on it. That, or it’ll be extremely boring because these will be the dullest cities ever made.
Since we hadn’t met before, I told him all of this in a more diplomatic fashion, and offered the advise that he might want to tone down his ambitions a bit, sharing some of our own city building experiences. I hope he didn’t take it as me trying to lecture him because I’ll be the first to admit that the Larian RPG production process is fundamentally iterative rather than systemic, but I do think that when it comes to cities & RPGs the issues are universal and not easily solved.
The problem with cities is that you want something interesting to happen in each house, and the streets need to look alive, which is only possible if you put a bunch of characters there who are involved in some kind of activity. You also want those characters to react somehow to what you’ve been doing in the world, and if you’re serious about your RPG, you want them to at least give some kind of illusion that they are interacting with one another. Because you want the player to feel like he’s in a city (as opposed to a village), you need to ensure that there are sufficient houses and characters, but you also need to make sure that the player doesn’t get lost, meaning the best cities contain different zones with different looks (e.g. the cliché rich & poor quarters).
Doing all of this requires a lot of scripting and content, and you really don’t get that much gameplay minutes out of your hard development work, because players typically rush through cities, looking for the next thing to do. It’s also hard to fill up a city’s uninteresting areas with combat, because you lack the space, or because it just doesn’t make sense to have combat in a particular area.
Furthermore, if you want some questing to happen in your city, you typically have to add a dungeon or send the player outdoors to do something, meaning that each part of your city is linked in some way to other areas. This becomes annoying the moment you need to cut something for productional reasons, because it means you have to not only touch the city, but also other areas.
This particular developer however is no fool and has had his share of development experience, so it’s not like he hadn’t thought about the matter. Similar to what we’ve been doing ever since Divine Divinity, he’s organized his storyline/world in such a manner that he can cut large parts ouf it if he doesn’t find the funding or it turns out it’s taking too much time. He’s also being clever about focussing on first finishing one area before starting on the second area. And he has ideas about a tailor in one city using the same scripting in each and every other city, thus cutting down on the production time of the cities because they share content.
While I’m ready to accept that he’s better at organizing a team to make a RPG than I am, he didn’t manage to convince me however that his approach was going to be succesful, for the simple reason that everything he’d mentioned, I’d already tried, with varying degrees of failure. Could be that we’re just very bad, but I don’t think so. Imho cities in RPGs are just plain evil when it comes to making them.
I didn’t counter-argue however.
Working on the book we’re making as part of the celebration of 10 years of Divinity, I browsed a lot through old notes and emails and one key thing I noticed about Larian is its insisting on making the same mistake over and over: always trying to put too much in one box.
I knew that we had a tendency of doing that, but I didn’t think I realized how bad it was until I found back two emails I sent to a publisher, one written in 2001 and the other written in 2008. Both of these mails used almost the exact same wording and reasoning to explain why the game was going to be late, what features we were going to cut and why they shouldn’t abandon hope.
The truth of the matter was that we were trying to put too much in those games, and it was remarkable to see how we managed again and again to get ourselves into the same kind of trouble for exactly the same kind of reasons, with our defense position being based on exactly the same arguments.
In hindsight, the games probably wouldn’t have been released if the publishers hadn’t been pushing us so hard, but in the same breath you can say that the games wouldn’t have been any good if we hadn’t resisted to the release pressure as much as we did and crammed in as much as we could.
And it’s that last observation which stopped me from trying to convince him too hard that indeed, he was most likely going to face some very hard times because he’s trying to put too much into his game. It would’ve been like arguing against myself, and contrary to several opinions offered by other people to me, I don’t think our trying to put too much in is that wrong.
I even think this type of idealism, this desire to cram a game with every single thing you can come up with, is the part of how you make a great RPG. Sadly of course, it’s also a fantastic route to not finishing them, but if you quell the ambitions at the start, in most cases you might just as well not get started. How many of those well produced (let’s remove any feature we can get away with) but soulless RPGs have we seen pass by in the past, wondering why these games were made in the first place?
It’s no big secret I think that I’m no big fan of the perfectly planned game where there’s buffer upon buffer to take care of any eventualities, where things like variance analysis are used to figure out if each resource if functioning optimally and where the room for iteration is exactly predefined. And since I’m no big fan, I therefore have no business telling this particular developer what I think of his plan, but I’m going to it anyway, because sometimes somebody telling you they doubt something, is exactly what is required to make it happen.
Based on intuition and experience alone, and without having a single clue about what the production plan looks like and what the abilities of his team are, it looked obvious to me that trouble is coming. With the budget available , the maximum I can see done well is a game with five villages and a goat, a moderate amount of forest and about 20 dungeons.
Now, that might sound harsh because compared to several cities and tens of villages that sounds really small, but actually, that’s more than enough to create a fantastic 40+ hours epic RPG, if each of these villages is done really well. And because he’ll have been aiming for higher, this reduced world is going to feel much bigger than it is, making it a much richer proposition. As long as he figures out in time that he needs to cut, and that cutting means cutting all the way to the healthy flesh, he’ll be more than fine and release a winner.
So now he can prove me wrong 🙂