Sunday, February 28, 2010

My Perfect RPG

I am on a hiatus on politics, because in the last weeks I just had about enough of it. It just isn’t healthy to complain about things you can’t change, which brings me to my complains about RPGs on the PC and how to make them better.

I am not talking about the “Hack&Slay Loot the Hell out of an unbelievable game world RPGs” like Diablo or Neverwinter Nights 2 or WoW or every other Multiplayer RPG (which are not really roleplaying games). I am talking about story-telling masterminds like Planescape Torment, Baldur’s Gate I & II, The Witcher (which is disliked by Shamus Young for some reasons I do not concur with), Dragon Age (to a limited extend), Gothic I & II. They were all fun and had rich somewhat more realistic environments ( you could almost believe that people really wanted to live there!). I am more of a fan of Tolkien’s unfinished work than of Lord of the Rings and I generally prefer original and dark fantasy work that conveys more of a realistic experience (Janny Wurts, George R.R. Martin, Steven Erikson, Glenn Cook etc.).

So, what exactly would my game be about. It would be pre-dominantly single player, probably not party-centric but with good AI (I know that is possible! but only if you let creatures act more like table-top figures than like your general DOOM monster). I would also think about the possibility to include a CO-OP multiplayer with up to 4 players. Of course, the engine must then scale the difficulty of the encounters (adding more monsters, more hp-heavy monsters etc.).

The setting would be, imo, pretty unique for any kind of “Fantasy” RPG. It would be a kind of medieval Europe, but with several interesting twists. I would split the game into three “Expansions” that are sold each with a year in between for about 20€. Each expansion would introduce a new city with the surroundings. Since the game and the story was planned for 3 iterations, you can make the plot seamless and more robust (like how Mass Effect 2 SHOULD have been!). The first iteration would take place in medieval Hamburg, the second in medieval Cologne and the third would be medieval Berlin (Prussia).The settings are widely different when it comes to the atmosphere and thus can be separated into three different expansions.

Now to give a little overview on the game world and its rules and limitations – story-wise not engine-wise. It wouldn’t be medieval Europe as we know it. Instead of Christianity ruling most of Europe and its rulers, we would have the polytheistic Greek pantheon as a role-model. Hamburg, f.e., would be a center of power to Poseidon, while Cologne would house pre-dominantly followers of Apollo. Berlin, then, would be the home to Hades and Ares. Of course, the deities would influence the look and feel of the different cities. Especially, Hamburg (which was one of the biggest European harbor cities of the time) with its direct access to the North Sea would be significantly influenced by Poseidon and his lore. Possibly, Hamburg would also be a central element to Zeus as it is one of the biggest cities. I am not quite sure about this yet. However, Hamburg is the perfect starting point for a new player, because you can use the idea of “this guy came over the sea and stranded at Hamburg harbor because he had no money anymore”. While the pantheon per se is not as new and intriguing, the important part is another piece of Greece mythology: the Gods actually could walk the Lands of the Living Humans. And as their historical counterparts, I want them to be a mass of fickle b*tches and b*stards, backstabbing and self-centered and such (think of Olympus and Illium in this regard – the novels by Dan Simmons I mean).

Now, let’s turn a bit to the game mechanics. The game itself should be open world (engine: Crytech V3 or Idtech 5 if possible) mostly inspired by Gothic (meaning quality over quantity when it comes to the size of towns and villages etc.). I also think that the actual class and alignment system of other games has to go. You start at neutral/neutral and will influence this by your actions over the course of the game. There will also be no option to decide what “class” you are, instead you get XP and money and you can choose what to be with it, much like Gothic. One important part is that buying skills and learning them will have visual improvements and in-game improvements to what you can do and how it looks, something greatly lacking in most games.

One of the most important part in any RPG is the battles and how they work and behave. I have several ideas, but they are for a separate post, because they are very important and I have thought about it in detail. I want to combine the interactivity of Gothic with the strategic and character-feat laden ideas of Neverwinter Nights. Actually, I still think that NWN has the coolest concept, because you could watch the dice rolls AND you saw a nifty visual representation (a bit like Return to Krondor, a much underrated game, imo.). You saw when you didn’t hit, you saw when a hit was parried and you saw hits. I would like to build on this and add the interactivity of a Gothic game. I think the Euphoria-animation-engine is a good step in this direction (just look at Madden NFL!!). But again, I will have more on this later.

Now, let’s talk graphics and immersive atmosphere. Here, I want a mix of Gothic (behavior of NPCs – they actually have daily duties) and the AI from Crysis, which was pretty competitive. I always think that texture-detail is second to other effects. Lightening is key in most scenes. If you can get the lightening (especially during dusk and dawn and night) right, you have an instant win. Shadows are the key part to atmosphere in most games. It is very very difficult to get ambient and direct lightening right during dusk/dawn and at night. Just look at recent examples to know what I mean. If there are shadows missing (Risen) or if the Shadows are unbelievable (NWN 2) than it just doesn’t work. Another difficulty is believability of architecture. Can you believe that a small Hut has actually 4 Rooms and a cellar? No, then you shouldn’t play NWN or other games like that. Believable crowds and NPC-people (see Gothic and Assassin’s Creed) are pretty important, too. I’d also opt for an open-beta process in this, meaning that the players should help defining and writing NPC scripts! I think far too seldom developers tap into the creativity pool of fan masses. The guys at Stardock are on the right track with Elemental. They have a very open process to software development and this will show!

Mostly, A.I. behavior is dependent on the character’s stats and several indicators like:

  • Known Player behavior (did he steal, kill innocents etc.)
  • racial preferences
  • gender
  • Health and Hunger
  • Daytime
  • etc.

Meaning, the engine will roll against these indicators and decide what action is apt. There would be a lot of these parameters, but I think it is essential to define behavior of NPCs in a realistic way and to emulate human decision making. Of course, the sets and parameters would vary from guard to peasant to king and everyone in between.

Now, let’s talk a bit about the limitations, because all these features will have a toll. I’d rather sacrifice on the graphic-side than on the game play side, which means I can live with smaller textures, less variety in textures, if animations are good. In fact animations are the key part! If it is impossible to have good lightening and full environmental shadows, then I still want good and believable animations. This wouldn’t be important in a shooter (speed is key) or a strategy game (zoom is everything! – so animation and detail is worthless), but it is very important to story driven games with a low pace. I also don’t need a mass of creatures, because the game-verse actual has pretty harsh limitations. There are almost no fantastic creatures. There will be wolves, boars, swine and the occasional bandit. There won’t be hippogriffs, dragons, Shadowbeasts and such. It should be human-centric, so there won’t be any elves, dwarfs (‘cept the occasional small human) or Orcs (‘cept ugly humans). There can be demons and such, which are creatures living in the planes of the Gods, but they will be the exception.

So, this will conclude the first part of my ideas and should be seen as an overview. I will certainly give more on the different parts (except the story) and expand on them, if and when I have time and think it is fun.

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