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Are TabIet0p RPGs Too Expansive To Fit In Video Game Form? On the heels of Cyberpunk 2077’s release, here is my essay on what RPG (video games) Are Supposed To Be, and What IS Possible Despite What People Claim, and How To Untap That Potential

Gamingtodaynews1f - Are TabIet0p RPGs Too Expansive To Fit In Video Game Form? On the heels of Cyberpunk 2077's release, here is my essay on what RPG (video games) Are Supposed To Be, and What IS Possible Despite What People Claim, and How To Untap That Potential
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Some say that table top RPGs are too expansive to fit into an open world video game with dynamic real time action combat, skill trees, perks, expansive player choice in dialogue, story, actions, everything. I don't agree. Those are the things RPGs must include in order to be RPGs. The question is, how can it be done in scripted video game form to approximate the unscripted possibilities of table top RPGs?

By necessity, the RPG must either give you one scenario to start, or multiple that converge to a similar starting point, or else require exponentially more scripting by the writers throughout the rest of the game. The idea is not to limit the player in his ability to come up with choices based on the environment and story they are in, but rather to have the inherent limitations of the world, the story, and the player/character's place in it create that limiting factor that allows writers to script each scenario the player might choose without having to script unlimited scenarios, or hundreds of scenarios, at each point in the story. Then the player makes their first choice, and goes from there. The choices start to interlink and branch off, some to their own paths, some back to other paths, some in between, and so on. The idea is that each player only sees like 5% or 10% of the scenarios in one playthrough, which comprises the path they chose and that happened to them as they played.

This requires thousands and thousands of pages of scripting. It's not your typical game with just one writer. It's not The Last of Us. It's a much more ambitious project, like writing multiple seasons of a TV show so that each player can make their own path that comprises just 1 season.

If a developer is not going to attempt to do it right, then they shouldn't attempt it at all. Yes, you have to hire more than one writer. Yes, you have to hire voice actors for 4-5 times as long as normal. Which is why having a voiced protagonist is a bad idea. Just let the player choose the dialogue and then have the other characters respond. It feels more natural anyway because if all you do is read the dialogue and choose it, it's like you said it, but having a voiced protagonist speak it, now it's not you anymore, it's the protagonist saying it in his voice. Fallout 4 made the same mistake and look how bad that game was.

Now obviously, it's not feasible to write 2,000 hours of choices for a 100 hour game, where the player only sees 5% of it. You can't have options of 1 out of 20 possible scenarios happening every 30 seconds in the game. But you can have one just like that every 30 minutes, which then locks you into a path until the next one 30 minutes later, where you can then make a new choice which could potentially take you off that path, back to another one you were on, or on to a new one, if you don't like where the game is locking you in.

The game has to lock you in for just long enough stretches of time, and in just enough ways, to make it feasible to actually create as a product and write it, to avoid having 100,000 pages of script instead of say 10,000 pages which I'm just estimating should be what AAA RPG developers should target, just enough that it is feasible to actually make the game in 5 years of development time (or 8… not saying any names… CDPR….). The game has to give you enough choice consistently that you are able to choose everything important to you in the way that makes sense to you in each scenario given the logical options available and the game is giving you logical feedback for each of those choices. It's a balance and right now every AAA RPG developer in the world, including CDPR, is failing at that balance not just by 1% or 2%, but by like 45%. They're not even close to the middle. They're prioritizing easier development, and hiring less writers and less voice actors and coders for dialogue scenes, over the quality of their games. And they're using really really stupid logic like "we don't want to develop so much content that most players won't even see," as if it matters what each individual player sees, and not whether they 1. buy the game and 2. enjoy their unique experience.

Any gamer would much rather see only 10% of a game, if they felt like their choices fully wrote that 10% in conjunction with the world the developers created, than see 100% of a game and have no player choice. Even just 30 hours per playthrough that is an endlessly replayable sandbox where the experience is super different each time would be received fantastically. Last of Us 2 was only 30 hours without any of that replayability.

Not to mention, RPGs are actually supposed to have lots of different great gameplay systems and perks and skill trees that make even the gameplay itself totally different each time you play. Every character you choose in Diablo 3 is like a new experience. The gameplay is uniformly great no matter which one you choose. But CDPR failed here as well because the shooting is only average, and the melee sucks, and the enemy AI is basically the same no matter you choose. So they failed there too but if they actually developed real RPG systems and gameplay and enemy AI, then even if there was no compelling story at all, it would still be fun to replay a 30 hour game with new builds because the gameplay would be so different. You go from an Apex Legends shooting experience one playthrough that is super fun, to a Dark Souls melee experience the next time, and it's all in the same game and all down to how you chose to spec your character, and the difficulty varies from encounter to encounter based on what strengths you chose and what weaknesses that left you. And maybe what combination of skills spawn on different enemy characters changes at different times in the story. Perhaps it's even tied to the story choices you made. Like if you betrayed one person to help another person get a certain technology, but then that person becomes your enemy, you might find in one playthrough that they used that tech you helped them get to develop an advanced weapon that they're now using in the fight against you. Or in other places to make it easier to code, it can just be random that this time the boss spawns with lightning attacks, the next time with fire, this time with an RPG, this time with a machine gun, etc. Combining scripted variability with random variability is a great way to hide the hand behind the curtain and give the player a totally dynamic and unpredictable experience.

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There are supposed to be not dozens, not hundreds, but thousands of variations like that in a good RPG. So it's constantly this dynamic experience where your choices in the story and in character relationships and with different factions are constantly giving you feedback for your choices on the level of story, while the gameplay loop is constantly giving you feedback for your choices on the level of stats and perks choices and gameplay choices, and then not only that, but these two halves of the RPG combine and intertwine so that you can't even trace exactly why the game is dynamically reacting to you in constantly new and exciting ways because the developers intertwined all the systems so expertly and cleverly that you can no longer even see behind the curtain, you're just immersed in the experience.

This game has basically none of any of this. All AAA modern RPGs don't. You would think coming off Witcher 3, and developing a table top RPG, and given all CDPR's talk, that this would have been the game to change that, but it appears that didn't happen at all. Let's not make excuses for them, in my opinion they totally failed and in my opinion it is because of developers like CDPR that the RPG genre is dying a slow death, at least AAA RPGs.

Now if you doubt a game like I'm describing can be scripted and developed in 5 years (or 8 years) time, let's just do some math. Modern AAA RPGs, for 90% of the game, offer basically zero choice, just an illusion of choice. And then maybe a dozen times in the game, they offer choices between 2 or maybe 4 or 5 options, sometimes 6 at the most it seems. So on average, for every 30 minutes of the game, they are offering maybe 1.1 choices, or 1.2 choices.

So to go from 1.1 or 1.2 choices every 30 minutes, to let's be conservative and say SEVEN, would be a huge leap. And at certain points in the game where the path you're on funnels your options inward, you might be left with only 2 or 3 choices in that scenario, making it easier to script. Then at other points, it would go the opposite direction, where you could have up to 20 different choices at certain points. But on average for the entire game, 7 choices every 30 minutes, 7 choices on average for each mission and for each side mission, let's say.

Then, let's understand that even in a full on RPG, the choices are still taking up only maybe 40% of the game at best. Probably more like 30% in a game with driving and so on like Cyberpunk 2077. The other 70% is gameplay. So let's say our target is a 50 hour game per playthrough, but that is nearly endlessly replayable because it has an average of 7 choices per mission. But the choices only make up 30% of the gameplay duration. 30% of 50 is 15 hours. So each playthrough involves 15 hours of choices, and there needs to be 7 times that many choices in the game. 7 times 15 is 105 hours. So all they would need to do to pull this off is 105 hours of dialogue and story content to approximate the experience of playing a 50 hour table top RPG in video game form, plus 35 hours of gameplay scenarios in which the enemy AI and the randomness element of the world changes to some extent how they go each time you play them, but which in terms of scripting are actually the same 35 hours. So that means they would only need to develop a 140 hour game total to achieve a 50 hour game with 7 real choices interspersed throughout 30% of that game.

That is completely doable! And remember that is for a 50 hour game, which is longer than GTA 5, except GTA 5 has almost zero choice. If they were targeting a 30 hour (per playthrough) experience, they would only need to script 63 hours, in order to give the player 7 real choices, on average, for every mission. Some missions only 2 choices, depending on prior choices, some missions 12 choices, and so on.

I mean, Cyberpunk 2077's main story is only 20 hours or so. So all they had to do was make 42 hours of dialogue/story/gameplay interactions involving an average of 7 choices each, interspersed with slightly over twice as much gameplay in between, and they would have created a main story that felt pretty darn close to tabletop RPG level of choice. At least, it would be a very good start, and then maybe for the sequel they could have enlarged the team and aimed for 10 choices per mission on average, and so on. It can be done! In fact, it wouldn't even require that much more scripting than the average season of 22 episode network television, which get written in one f**ing year!* So all they had to do was hire a writing team the size of any network television show, keep them on for two or three years of dev time instead of one, and Cyberpunk 2077 could have been what it was hyped to be. It's frustrating to think about really, lol. But… it's not what it was hyped up to be. I just hope AAA RPG developers get the memo and start making real AAA RPGs. I would say "again" but I don't think they ever made them to begin with. The potential of the genre is still completely untapped. But this is the blueprint for untapping it. I thought CDPR partnering with MP of Cyberpunk 2077 tabletop fame meant they were going to be the ones to untap it, but, they weren't. Hopefully one of these companies will though. It would be great to see Rockstar make an action RPG like this, but they could actually learn from CDPR on one thing, and that is free aim shooting… otherwise, maybe they're the ones who need to try pushing the RPG genre forward to what it can be, because CDPR really missed the boat, and we don't even need to bring up Bioware or Bethesda these days.

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