Author Topic: Action RPGs  (Read 2943 times)


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Action RPGs
« on: December 06, 2016, 12:25:50 PM »
The reason I found AA originally was searching for Action RPGs. I've always had a healthy obsession with games like Zelda 2, Secret of Mana/Evermore, and Willow (NES). So finding AA was a natural progression. So the topic of Action RPGs and what they mean in the Indy world of action RPGs today has me thinking.

There's a few data points that I draw from with a lot of the following examples. So if you want to check them out, it's a good exercise for A&A's era of RPGs and how there were being interpreted into first person shooters.

The main topics will be Hexen, the Wrath of Cronos mod for Hexen, Amulets and Armor, Hexen II, and a Hexen II mod of my own called Game of Tomes.

So the topic starts on Hexen and how it relates to a board game called Heroquest. In most RPGs, monsters are made out of delicious experience points. It tastes like candy and the best way to eat it is bashed into a bloody pulp with a spiked mace.

Heroquest was a GamesWorkshop colaboration based on Warhammer and didn't have a concept of XP. Similarly, so does Hexen. Every monster that you fight is a risk. You spend HP, Mana, and Items to pass by them, and skipping a fight is good. Without the incentive to kill monsters for XP, it becomes more creative. Which is both good and bad. "Yay" for more role play than game. "Boo" for no XP and leveling.

Hexen II tried to add missing RPG elements. Players had stats, had starting HP, could increase HP and Mana limits. Gained lovely XP from killing monsters. They even got skills that helped them fight. The problem is that the XP was scarce, levels were rare, and the bonuses were flavor not features. Hexen II simlpy had MORE rpg flavor but no calories. Killing monsters was a burden on resources that mattered and didn't provide any incentive for fighting. And with the level design, there was no skipping monsters through clever means. Not that the levels were bad, just not supportive of the game play. And the biggest issue with the RPG part was there was no way to level grind. There is a finite amount of XP in the game.

Enter Wrath of Cronos. A Mod for Hexen. It's a pretty big T.C.. It includes tons of features from other mods. New weapons. Tons of skills. An alchemy system. Leveling. And new monster types. It's actually so featureful that it forces a relatively simple strategy to succeed, instead of encouraging players to explore their options. But overall, a really solid implementation of an action RPG.

So why is this significant? Because that's the story of Quake. The original game design was to be some kind of Hammer totting RPG character who brained bad guys in a fantasy setting. Partway into development they realized that it wasn't fun. What they wanted to do was really difficult in 3d. And that's where Hexen II left itself. It was a mod of Quake and turned out to be the best attempted to make an official quake-like RPG.

So there I saw myself at the 20th anniversary of Quake. It needed an RPG. Something simple enough that you want to explore all of the features, not find a single winning strategy. So I started with grand ideas of making a Quake RPG only to realize that the Hexen II source code (scripting) was available. So off I set on Game of Tomes.

Game of Tomes is an attempt to accentuate the RPG features of Hexen II. To take them out of the background and put them on the front. There were a lot of challenges. A lot of weird little wrinkles, but in the end it was a great learning experience.

So the first influence was obviously Wrath of Cronos. Along with an older mod called Korax, it represents Hexen RPGs done right. So little by little concepts of thate game were taken. Suddenly players could gain attribute scores instead of just hp and mana. Player's were healed back to full at every level. XP requirements were reduced and made managable. All of the weapons were refactored to run off of attributes. New little "skills" (like the crusader draining health) were added. It became a game where you WANTED to smash monsters for squishy, delicious XP. (I should point out that I used a similar stat distribution method as A&A because of how well it works, and probably should be expanded upon in future discussion.)

But there was still one big issue, and after that long introduction, it's the main topic for this particular post. (but all game design discussion is welcomed in this thread) There still were not enough monsters to kill in order to grind.

The neat thing is that Wrath of Cronos has a brilliant level grinding mechanic. Wandering monsters! Built off of the way that Hexen already respawns monsters after a given time, this mod spawns more and even bigger monsters. The longer a player fights through a map, the more chance that wandering XP bags will come by.

But there's more. The problem with all RPGs is finding a way to scale the challenge with the player levels. Most games simply boost health. It's an effective way to make an individual monster tougher but it doesn't necessarily up the challenge. And if monster health scales equally to player advancement, then player advancement is meaningless (I'M LOOKIG AT YOU DIABLO II!!!!!!!). So Hexen did something AMAZING with monsters. Most monsters have about the same health as the basic monster (the ettin). The next tougher monster (the afrits) has significantly less health but can fly and shoot fireballs. The next up has the same health but can block shots with a shield. Monster skills establishes the difficulty, not stats. Just like in Tabletop games. Sure health goes up, but you don't see a lot of metal eating goblins in D&D. You have to RISE to that challenge.

Wrath of Cronos enhanced this feature by making every monster that you encounter have a chance of becoming stronger. Sometimes they were big and tough, sometimes they could shoot fire spells, sometimes they could spawn other monsters. It added a level of difficulty that ramped up as more monsters appeared. The more monsters, the higher chance of getting a tougher version. I borrowed this in Game of Tomes. Every monster had about a 10% chance to spawn as a special monster (spectre, ghost, giant, leader). One addition was that all monsters respawned anywhere between 2 and 7 minutes after dying. So there was a randomized restocking of monsters. And as players gain levels, the chances of a tougher monster increases. So the difficulty scales with the player on top of the fact that progressively stronger monsters are encountered along the way.

So that feature boils down to two things. First, the strength of monsters is random. Second, the restocking happens in unpredictable ways. It's not so much about having a new experience, as it is about taking the stale difficulty scaling of health and damage (I still blame you, Diablo II) and replacing it with an advanced way of distributing the challenge. It's less about being random and more about making the distribution better.

Back to A&A. I don't think that respawning monsters is a good idea. It would definitely throw off level design. Plus, scripting allows map makers to add this feature in when they want (which is exactly how Hexen did it). But, understanding the impact on randomized monsters can direct where we go with future advancments.

« Last Edit: December 06, 2016, 12:32:56 PM by peewee_RotA »


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Re: Action RPGs
« Reply #1 on: December 16, 2016, 08:43:44 AM »
I've been planning and prepping for a big cross country move. So I have only had little spurts of free time. During which I picked up never winter nights for the first time.

I had heard of the similarities to Ultima VII and VIII before but I definitely understand the comparison now. But those similarities aside, it reignites a game design principal that I think is important and is very relevant to A&A...

Should every character be able to see every piece of content in the game?

Well that backs up to a much more fundamental concept. Is a game about playing within the rules and winning the best way possible, or is a game about seeing all of the content.

The classic example is Super Mario Bros. 1. The purpose of the game is winning and getting a high score. Skipping levels and enemies is encouraged. The latter example is Super Mario World for SNES. The goal is to find every secret in every level.

Now there are definitely good and bad parts to both approaches. Both are perfectly valid types of game design. But the best games know which category that they fall into and stay there. You'll notice that the much hated pay to win games violate this regularly.

Many RPGs are in the second category. Bashing brains for juicey XP and finding sweet loot means getting to every piece of content.

However this is not as cut and dry as it seems. Most RPGs randomize loot drops, especially games like Diablo. To the point that trying to see all the content can take decades. Not to mention games that make it hard to find useful loot on purpose (Diablo II, report to the principal's office)

That's one of the areas where A&A falls short. It is entirely a "see all content" game. There are challenges but even the spells require only memorizing a combination. Once you see a spell that is part of your phone number, you'll never forget it.

But I argue that action RPGs should be the first category. Try to win and only dive into content if you truly want to. It just takes some careful planning and patience.

 So what are some of the strategies used by RPGs to fall into the first category?

The first is secrets and puzzles. Now simple puzzles and secrets have the opposite effect. It's the really challenging, incomplete, and obscure ones that make the finding of the secret less of a goal. A great example is in Shining force 2. There is a secret battle room which is hard to find, but only exists to help you level. Not to see it. Players are split on whether it is worth completing.

Along the same line is side quests. When the choice is between beating an obvious main quest and diverting to a side quest then the question of whether or not it is worth it comes up. There are plenty of games where side quests do the opposite of intended, but Ultima VII is a great example where side quests are not really necessary.

Nonlinear design is another approach. Allowing players to take on challenges at their own pace let's some areas seem more exciting when taken on at a lower xp level. A&A does this surprisingly well in that taking g on a higher challenge is exciting, not that the game is actually nonlinear.
(Word of warning. Level design is an art and nonlinear levels is almost the exact opposite of good level design.)

After covering those topics I'll get back to the original point. In content consumption games, every character should be able to get to all of the content. See MMOs for this. Every character is an island, and all roads point north. It might just be a little harder.

The original Elder Scrolls were better in this regard. Some characters just sucked and died. Some could only bash ahead on the main quest. Some had abilities that made exploration easier. Other games have other things that exclude certain classes like lock picking, invisible treasure, and magic portals.

So players have to play in the style of their choice and can't make decisions about seeing all the things. They have to worry about winning.

I think that A&A almost got this right. It's got a lot of freedom to encourage different play styles, and it's also fun to play. Engaging in wizard battles is cool. Scraping for resources at the end of a battle is exciting. Creeping through corners wary of traps is full of suspence.

Where bit falls short is that once you memorize these experiences, there is little to do to make it fun again.

Adding in tiny features for this has been a strong opinion of mine in pwmod. Limiting wand use and making skills that have to be learned was an attempt to counteract this.

I don't think that it was the best solution ever but at least here is some explanation behind it.

You'll also see hints of this in my level design.

« Last Edit: December 16, 2016, 11:42:36 AM by peewee_RotA »