Sneak Preview #20 – What lies beneath the surface ...

A steampunk RPG
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Sneak Preview #20 – What lies beneath the surface ...

Post by FenCayne »

[This is a repost of the 'letter' Jack posted on his blog on Friday. It's more of a scene-setting piece for later Sneak Previews which will explore on some of the gameplay and narrative inspirations for Roger Steel, how I have adapted them to fit in with the limitations of the Roger Steel game engine, and the realities of indie game development in general. I'm sorry it's been a while. Hopefully regular service will return soon!]

Although you haven't heard from me for months – and even Jack only slightly more frequently – it's not because Roger Steel has ground to a halt. There has hardly been a day in which I haven't been thinking of some aspect of the game, if not doing some actual writing. Like a great intangible Rubic's cube being manipulated in the limited confines of my mind, I have been thinking not only of Roger Steel's narrative, but also the title's mechanics and gameplay, and how those relate to the story being told.

Designing and writing a game is always a matter of choices and compromises. From the engine in which it is written to the genre in which it is set, each choice entails its own set of consequences, some of which might manifest themselves only far later in the development cycle. But in order to develop games economically – that is with a view to making a profit at the end of the day – it is the game development team's job to foresee as far as possible the consequences of the choices being made even in a project's earliest stages. Changing direction due to unforeseen circumstances late in development is often fatal to a game's profitability and the studio's survival.

Making an RPG is particularly tough in this regard. Players expect a modicum of choice in traversing the plot and flexibility in building their characters. Meeting just these two expectations – which, while necessary for a successful game, is not itself going to win plaudits from gamers – entails a whole lot of effort. With this in mind, it is instructive as a game designer not only to look at successful games but also the unsuccessful.

Let's take as an example, Arcania - Gothic 4 – a game universally panned by the critics and gamers as little more than an adventure game masquerading as an RPG and a grievous insult to its illustrious namesakes. For me as a game writer and designer, it's instructive to play through Arcania and see what went wrong. The graphics are good, the world detailed, and the player character development decent.

However, when it comes to plot or open world exploration, the game utterly fails. The player is forced to progress through a linear sequence of plot points which match perfectly to a linear sequence of locations. Dialogue is banal, NPCs boring cardboard cut-outs with paint-by-numbers characterization, and interactive elements placed in the world (beds, workbenches, drums) which hark back to the original games but are stripped of all functionality. Arcania provides no incentive for the player to return, or even to complete the journey.

Contrast this to Two Worlds, a game with rough graphics, dubious voice acting, and unfinished, rudimentary character development. It also met with a very mixed reception, yet because it had a functioning open world (ignoring the plot, the player can explore freely to his or her heart's content while dodging the rather lethal wildlife and bandits) it is objectively a far more interesting game.

Clearly Arcania's developers ran out of funding before much more than the game engine had been completed, while those who developed Two Worlds apportioned a limited budget to deliver the best game they could which would at least meet the minimal expectations of open-world RPG aficionados.

In Indie development, the compromises are tough and the economics unyielding. The engine we are using inflicts its own limitations on the story we can tell and the methods we can use to tell it. Roger Steel won't bear any resemblance to Baldur's Gate, The Witcher, nor even Arcania or Two Worlds. Neither will it resemble The Broken Sword series, The Last Express, or the Blade Runner adventure from the late nineties. It will, however, carry within its DNA fragments of each of those inspirations, albeit often twisted beyond all recognition. And hopefully, it will meet the expectations of players like yourselves in that it delivers an interesting, dynamic, rewarding, and polished experience which is worth returning to in order to explore different plot paths, relationship options, and character development strategies.