A Good RPG Character is Defined by What They Cannot Do. No, Really!

I’ve written before about how to make a working game in RPGMaker VX Ace, but this time I’m going to talk about what makes a game fun.

When you’re thinking about a game you like, you generally aren’t thinking about the things that you can’t do. In fact, it’s usually the opposite, you usually think about that time in Halo when you killed two Hunters with one pistol bullet each, or in Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga when you ended a random encounter on turn one with Megidolaon. These are the moments that are memorable, but they are memorable because of limitations. Restrictions on your actions will generally not be what you remember from a game, but they are the reason why you remember the things that you do.

To illustrate this, I’ll use the case of Final Fantasy XII. Final Fantasy XII was released twice, once just as Final Fantasy XII, and once as Final Fantasy XII: International Zodiac Job System (Quite a mouthful). These two versions were nearly identical, with the only difference being in their ability system. In both games, there is a License Board, and before you can use an ability or piece of equipment, you have to spend License Points (earned by killing enemies) to purchase the corresponding License. In addition, in order to purchase a License you must already have an adjacent License.

The point where the two games diverge is that, in Final Fantasy XII there is one license board, which is used by all characters. While the manual encouraged you to specialize, in practice it was more effective to have everyone learn the same abilities. By comparison in Final Fantasy XII: International Zodaic Job System, there are twelve classes (Called “Jobs”) each of which has a unique License Board. When a character joins your party you choose which job they will have, and they are locked into that one License Board for the rest of the game.

What makes this an interesting case is that pretty much the only change that was made between the two games is that in the International version, every character has been made less powerful. Instead of being able to teach every character every ability, now only some characters can learn healing abilities, only some can wear heavy armor, only some can learn effective crowd control magic, and so on. With this change, the characters need each other and are forced to work together. Physical characters can survive sustained attacks, but need White or Red Mages to keep them healed while Black and White Mages are too fragile to survive an enemy’s attention for long and need Knights or Samurai to hold the attention of enemies. This inter-dependency forces the player to make choices about which jobs to choose, how to develop each character, and how each character will act in battle. This relatively simple change caused the International version to be a much more enjoyable game.

A common mistake RPGs make related to this is the handling of money. Quite often, you will quickly accumulate enough gold, or gil, or shillings, or whatever, to allow you to buy anything you want as soon as you find a shop that stocks it. You might deal with limited funds at first, but quickly price becomes no object. The problem with this is that, when you can afford as much as you want of whatever you want, money is not a factor in gameplay. The purpose of money as a mechanic is to force the player to choose which items they will buy, and which they will do without.

In summary, while restrictions on choice are not what you remember about a game, they are the reason why you remember what you do. You remember when you can erase a group of enemies from existence with a gesture because you can’t normally do that. You remember when you brought down a tough enemy with a single perfect shot because you had to learn their behavior and position yourself carefully to make that shot. What you should take home if you are making a game, in RPG Maker or otherwise, is that it’s important to think about what restrictions you are imposing on the player and what choices you are forcing them to make, because really, that is what determines whether they love your game, or just pass it by.

Regards,

Science Viking

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