A long time ago, back in the days when I was pitching Divine Divinity to UK press, I came up with an acronym that described what I thought was important in computer role playing games. I engaged in this particular mental exercise because I needed something to tell all those journalists I was about to meet, and I knew that there’d be many awkward moments during which we’d have to patiently wait for a reboot of the game after one its many guaranteed crashes.
And so it came to be that my youthful self invented the FUME paradigm, a pattern against which one can evaluate the likelyhood of Swen falling in love with a RPG, or not. If it scores low on the FUME scale, statements you can expect from me include such gems as “it sucks” or “that shouldn’t have been made”. But if it scores high on the same scale, I’ll keep on talking about it for ever and ever. Ultima VII for instance did pretty well on the FUME scale, as did Fallout 2. I’d love to include a modern RPG here, but sadly there are none that I played that score as highly as those games did.
The danger exists that that last statement makes you think that I’m one of those cynics that thinks all CRPGs are shit, but that wouldn’t be right. On the contrary, I think there have been many breakthroughs over the last decades in CRPG design – the only problem is just that there hasn’t been a single game yet that incorporates everything I want to see in one game, and production constraints over the last couple of yours seem to have blocked the kind of development I’d liked to see. But even if I’m slightly disappointed with the lastest RPG incarnations, I do remain optimistic about the future, because I firmly believe that in the end progress can’t be halted.
So, let’s have a look at what FUME stands for.
Ultima VII has a pretty high FUME value
FUME, in short, is my method for measuring the quality of character development a game is going to give me, character development being the feature I care the most about in a RPG. The higher the FUME score, the more I love it and the lower the FUME score, the less likely it is to remain on my hard drive (or even be installed if I judge the FUME potential to be low)
The F in FUME stands for the Freedom of character development available.
Can you make the avatar you want to play? Or are you forced into a particular stereotype conjured by the designers of the game, who for sure will not have thought of your particular fantasy. It’s an important question, because it directly affects how immersed I will be in the game.
Freedom also reflects the degree of linearity present – you can’t have a very high Freedom value in a linear game. It also stands for the liberty that is given to you to make decisions that have some in-game consequences. If I don’t get to make at least a few decisions that affect at least a few things in your gameworld, chances are you’ll score very low on my Freedom scale with your RPG.
The original Fallouts scored quite high on my Freedom scale whereas (perhaps surprisingly) most Bioware games actually scored quite low for me, even if I did enjoy the Baldur’s Gates & Icewind Dales a lot. Sadly, most RPGs are a far cry from what I’d want to see, but there have been steps in the right direction, so I remain hopeful.
Next up is the U, whichstands for the Universe in which you develop your character.
Is it interesting? Is it diverse? Is it original? Can you have cool and fun adventures in it? Is there sufficient depth? Do you care about the game world? Is it consistent with itself? Is it the type of universe that is interesting to play in as a starting character, but also as a well-developed hero? And also, is it a place that reflects your actions? Does it change as a result of your heroic deeds? Do you make an impact? If the answer to all or most of these questions is yes, I might be tempted to play the game even if it sucks at all the other levels. I like to explore new universes. They are a projection of the complex mix of cultures that make up a game development team, and there’s often something to be learnt from them.
The M then stands for the Motivation that is given to you to develop your character.
This doesn’t always have to be the main story: Diablo for instance was a game that got its Motivation from item fever and a few cutscenes, rather than from its complex storyline. However, it’s clear that having a good storyline can be instrumental in increasing your desire to explore a game’s universe. When the Universe falls flat (as it often does), it’s very possible that I’ll continue playing if my motivation to discover what comes next is strong enough. In general I find that if both Universe and Motivation score too low, I’m not going to be interested in a game.
An interesting case here is World of Warcraft. I had 2 level 70 characters, a number which is far from impressive for a lot people, but by my standards, considering the amount of free time I have, that’s a number that’s insane. Now, I didn’t play World of Warcraft because I thought it had a good story, or because I was impressed by its universe – I only played it because I was motivated by … the other people playing it. So, anything that motivates you to keep on playing goes I guess, though my personal holy grail will remain a strong storyline that will emotionally impact me.
Finally, E stands for the quality of the Enemies against which you can develop your character.
You can interpret this very broadly. The E would probably better be replaced by an A, as what I really mean is the Antagonist(s) against which develop your character, but FUMA doesn’t sound as sexy.
There has to be some resistance in the game world against which you can grow, be it the bad guys, an ethical problem the importance of which increases over time, the refusal of your avtatar to deal with his personality issues etc… Whatever form a game’s antagonist or antagonists take, you want them to be interesting, varied, original, believable and surprising.
I actually can’t think of any RPG that really impressed me in this department, though entities like SHODAN did manage to at least upset me sufficiently for me to remember it. I think the lack of memorable villains has a lot to do with the narrative limitations our medium still has, but as technology improves, I’m sure that eventually we’ll be able to make a villain that recognizes what your avatar is all about, and then hit it in its weakest spot.
As I said, I haven’t encountered a single game which scores high on all fronts, but I did enjoy many games that score moderately well in at least one aspect, so any game that combines two or even three components of FUME is in my opinion already a pretty succesful RPG. If you want to know why I loved Ultima VII so much, it’s because it scored high on Universe and Motivation, gave me sufficient illusion of Freedom and I at least remember some of its villains.
I wrote this piece because I realized (while writing another piece) that I never really explained here how I quantify concepts and designs at Larian. The process is really quite simple. Anything that gives one of our games a chance of climbing higher on the FUME scale is something I’ll put my weight behind. Anything that lowers our FUME potential, is something for which I’ll have an immediate dislike, even if it’s a well-practiced game mechanic.
Over the years, I learnt that often things get implemented out of compromise, be it for technical, financial, productional, or humane reasons, and not because they fit a certain vision. And sometimes it looks like this is something that’s inescapable. Game production involves the work of a lot of people over a long period of time and it’s impossible to get all the noses aligned in the same direction all the time, so conflicts and the necessary compromises that follow them are very hard to avoid.
Whenever you see something that decreases the FUME-score in one of the games I’m responsible for, odds are that it’s because of one of those compromises. It is one of my deepest professional desires to one day manage to make a RPG that isn’t subject to those compromises. That’s a very hard thing to do, so I’ll probably be busy for some time, but at least I have a guarantee that I won’t grow bored with my job.
Such reflections aside, I can tell you that Divinity:Original Sin is imho a big step in the right direction, and that is our ambition to make this game the framework on which many a FUME-highscoring RPGs will be built. Whether or not we’ll succeed is something only lady fate knows, but I know it won’t be for lack of trying. Personally I’m in any case starting to believe that compared to our previous endeavours, our latest Divinity game will be the Larian game with the highest FUME score. That feels right to me and it tells me that amidst all the things that don’t go as planned, we are in any case are heading in the right direction.
I’m not sure if anybody else has developed his or her own method for scoring how good a RPG is in their opinion, but I’m really interested in hearing about other systems that exist. Broadcasters do this kind thing routinely for instance to ensure that their TV programming fits with certain values, and it’s not an uncommon thing among many brand managers.
For a RPG developer, little value lists like this are handy tools to give to designers. It allows them to quickly quantify for themselves if an idea fit within a certain vision. So if you know of any, please let me know.