Podcast: Designing RPGs and Video Games

Last week I guest-hosted an RPG podcast with Zeus Poplar.

This week sees the second part: Episode 012 — Authoring RPGs.

Read on for some interesting excerpts.

JD: When I was running my D&D game on the internet, one of the biggest problems was always trying to get enough people at the right time. If one of them drops out, are you going to find a guy to replace him? World of Warcraft, they’ve solved this problem. They have these twelve-man, sixteen-man raids. I think one of the reasons for that is, that in Dungeons & Dragons, there is generally only one of each class in a party. In World of Warcraft, you might have several druids, several paladins, and if one person drops out that week, it doesn’t matter. You can find new players really easily, because it’s the internet, effectively everyone is in one spot, at least everyone on one server. You have thousands of players.
Zeus: Yeah, it’s like every night is a huge convention. It’s like Comic-Con every night.
JD: That’s exactly why they got it work. World of Warcraft, you could say, it isn’t emulating a small group of tabletop players, it’s emulating the convention play, the tournament play. It’s very structured, the game master has very little say in the game, he just runs the adventure as it’s written. You get together with people you may not even know, and everyone goes on the same adventure. That actually works really well as a game.

JD: Some games, I think Left 4 Dead, I thought, here’s a game where you have four different people, it seems intentionally designed that you play this with your Steam friends, and you get together and fight different monsters. And I thought, y’know, this is an awful lot like D&D. … They’re doing something like taking the small-scale D&D, where you and four other friends get together go out on small adventures.
Zeus: Yeah, it’s got all the basic elements of a quest.

Zeus: I think that’s one place where Wizards of the Coast really need to try and get this sort of… I’m just going to say “casual”, just getting together with your friends and playing a quick adventure. Especially these days with microtransactions catching on, and people not minding spending like say, “Okay, if I’m going to give Steam $3 if me and my buddies can play like a half-hour Dungeons & Dragons quest.” I think that little short modules with simple rules would catch on. As opposed to trying to take on World of Warcraft, which probably isn’t going to work.

JD: A lot of games seem to be trying to take on Warcraft at their own game, and honestly I don’t think it’s wise. If I was to put out a game today, I would say “I don’t want to make a World of Warcraft clone”, because World of Warcraft will beat you.
Zeus: Yeah, totally.
JD: You’re not going to draw people from World of Warcraft just by being like World of Warcraft, and then not as polished, and then not as well-tested.

JD: Magic items in D&D third edition, they used to have a lot of flavour text, or at least they would have some descriptive text and some very versatile abilities. Magic item descriptions in D&D fourth edition read like you read them off a World of Warcraft screenshot. I half expect, reading the magic items list in a new D&D book, it’s going to say, “The Sword of Kas, Binds When Equipped”.
Zeus: I’m looking through my AD&D first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, and it’s like a third treasure. Censer of controlling air elementals, and girdle of giant’s strength, and you get a good thick paragraph with every one, Ioun stones, incense of obsession.

Zeus: I know that in D&D fourth edition they put the treasure into the Player’s Handbook instead of the DM’s Guide for the first time, which is kind of strange.
JD: I think the reason why they did it was that whenever people put out a D&D edition, it’s like they make the edition for the people who played the previous edition. Whenever I played third edition, once a player started getting a certain amount of money and treasure, they would pick up a treasure like “+1 axe”, and everyone’s got +2 weapons. So they put it in the bag of holding, and obviously if the axe bursts the inside of your bag of holding you lost all your items, so as players you were very specific: “I wrap everything up very carefully with rags, put them into the bag of holding, and we take them back to “the shop”, and we sell them all in “the shop”… the same imaginary magic shop that we just assume is there. And we buy items. So items in third edition were something you bought. They would just take the Dungeon Master’s Guide and look through it, even if the DM didn’t let them.

JD: The Halo shield system, I think that came from the Quake healthbox system, whereby you fight a lot of monsters, then you backtrack to pick up ammo that you couldn’t pick up earlier because you had full ammo, and you’d backtrack to pick up health. In Halo they said “We don’t want to penalize you because you didn’t want to do the boring work of backtracking for health”. So they said, “You can be killed in one battle, but after the battle your health’s back to full,” because the battle is what the game’s about. I think you see that in D&D fourth edition: it’s all about how much power you can bring to one battle, not how much power you can spread over a day.
Zeus: Yeah, I know what you’re saying. It’s something that’s been popping up in console games too. For a while now there have been games, especially from Japan, where you completely heal yourself after battle. There’s a lot of people who hate that - they think it’s hand-holding, they think it’s baby-sitting. On the other hand, there’s people who don’t like the fact that most random battles just chip away at you.
JD: Like I say with Quake, where it’s not a matter of, “Can I fight ten monsters in a row,” it’s, “Can I fight two monsters, oh I’m down to 50% health, can I remember where I left the healthbox?” In Pokemon, I spend a lot of time running back to the Pokemon centre and healing everyone. For lot of people, they want to play the combat, the meat of the game. In a game based on a central conflict, like a Pokemon battle or a first person shooter battle with monsters or whatever, developers want you to spend a lot of time really getting into the game, and less time going back and healing yourself.
Zeus: Yeah.
JD: In Quake I think there’s something good about that. It makes it in part an exploration game. It’s like being in a dungeon, in a D&D game. You’re still exploring this place, and it gives you a sense that, not just that these rooms are just a convenience for the combat, but rather that the rooms are part of a structure that you have to learn to navigate. So you go back, recognise, “Hey, that’s the way I came in,” get the health and come back. It’s like a trick to say, if you’re not very good at the combat, at least you can go back and say, “I’m exploring this place”, you feel very familiar with it, and I think that sense is one thing people like.

JD: I think D&D writers and RPG writers are the sort of people who know how to mix [writing and gameplay]. I think it’d be interesting if they hired D&D adventure writers to make video game stories, plots, and whatever. I’m not just saying that because I am one and I’m looking for work.

JD: Occasionally I go back and play Quake 2. I once played it through examining the level design, to see what ideas I could use in a D&D game. One thing I found was that very often you have the illusion of choice. There are two ways: you can go left or right, or up or down, or take an underwater route or an over-a-bridge route. What really happens is that you always have to go to the same set of points. If you don’t go underwater, you’re going to have to go underwater to get the key card. Some of the levels, what happens is that they give you two options: If you go left you’re going the right way, but if you go right you’ll find a dead end. But, if you go right you’ll find treasure: ammo and health. So if you’re the sort of person who just wants to blast through the game you can do that, but if you like exploring, you’ll also be rewarded for that. They have that in D&D as well.

Zeus: I think Mount & Blade just started out as an attempt to recreate a Braveheart battlefield, and then over the years all the roleplay stuff, the storyline, the quests, all that stuff just kinda naturally evolved out of the game design.
JD: That’s the same way it happened with Dungeons & Dragons.
Zeus: It’s true!
JD: The original Dungeons & Dragons, there were two classes: Fighting Man and Magic User. And if you go back further, there wasn’t even Magic User.

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