Don't mess with RPG's


So, based on the great responses from the last article over at gamasutra, people care a lot about RPGs. I've always known this, but the response really drove it home for me. The most important lesson I learned is this:
We all have our own personal definition of what is and isn't an RPG.

So, I won't even try to establish a universal definition for RPG's - I think we all know what kind of games we're talking about in general. I'll also admit that my personal preferences are towards console-style JRPGs and Tactical RPGs, so my apologies to fans of other sub-genres who feel ignored.

Let's take me down a peg

When I write blog posts, I aim for short and snappy, so I dispense with equivocating language like "although this isn't always the case" and "there are many exceptions to this rule", etc. Clearly this was a mistake when writing about as sensitive a topic as RPG's!"We're not worthy!" Let's get one thing out front and center: I don't believe I'm the Messiah of RPG design, and Defender's Quest is by no means God's gift to RPG's. I also make no claims to being "innovative" - I see design as borrowing pre-existing ideas and re-arranging them in an interesting and pleasing fashion to solve a specific problem. So to all those who have come before me, I salute you. I'm not here to start a revolution.

Reaching into the mail bag

One of the greatest criticisms I received from the last article was exalting the battle system over the other parts of an RPG, like story and character.

First of all, I think RPG's can downplay or ignore story and still be RPG's - Hack N' Slash and Roguelike games, for instance, are still welcome at my table. This makes the "RP" in "RPG" a little anachronistic, but we crossed that bridge long ago. It's common now to call any game that's heavy on management, experience, loot, and leveling up an "RPG." I think of the term as an evolutionary family tree rather than an exclusive club.Desktop Dungeon is an awesome mini-RPG

However, I understand people who say story should be front and center. Those are the kinds of games I loved as a kid. So, let me clarify - the battle system isn't the most important system, just the most important system to get right. Especially if 90% of your time is spent in battle.

How Persona 4 broke my heart

Let's take Persona 4 as an example. I loved this game. It was brilliant, innovative, and fascinating. The artwork was beautiful, I loved the audio design, and the story was awesome. I especially applaud how they made the story happen over time rather than over space. In Final Fantasy, the story advances when you get to the next town/castle/dungeon/etc. In the Persona games, after you've done all your tasks for the day you go to bed, and then something new and exciting happens tomorrow.

What's best about this is that it lets you re-use the same areas without them getting stale. If time only advances when you arrive at the next town, however, it demands a stream of throw-away locations to drive the plot forward. In the original Final Fantasy games, you rarely visited the same place more than once (though this improved later in the series).

Of course, "span time, not space" has been done before, so I'll give a nod here to Majora's Mask the Quest for Glory series, and others.

So, Persona 4 - great story, great system. What's not to like?

The battle system, that's what. The meta-game is great, but the battles are a drag. This, I'm sure, is a matter of personal taste, so you might disagree. My point is that this is one of the best RPG experiences I've ever had and I never finished the game. When I was younger, I could have slogged through it for the sake of the story, but now that I'm married and work full-time I just can't. It's sad that an excellent game should go unfinished because the central system is so boring. Especially when the main appeal for me was story!

So - this is what I mean when I say we have to get the battle system right. Honestly, I think you could make a great RPG without any battle system at all. Otherwise, you had best get it right if you want any of the other central attractions to get the attention they deserve.

Please, think of the children! Just to be clear - maybe you think Persona 4 was great in every single way. That's fine - my point here is NOT to make you agree with me. My point is that there are a lot of players that consider this kind of battle system a pain and will quit in frustration no matter how awesome the rest of the game is.

With that being said, here are my (personal!) design principles for designing Defender's Quest:

  1. Give me a DENSE experience. Throw away all pointless time-sinks

    I don't have time for 60+ hour epics anymore, especially when story is less than 1% of that, anyway. Can you give me the five best hours and call it even?

    (ZeBoyd's Cthulhu Saves the World and 2D Boy's World of Goo are great examples of this rule in action)

  2. Let me just beat the game if I want.

    Sometimes, I just want to see how it ends. Please don't make watch it on YouTube. RPG's appealed to me as a six-year-old because I couldn't beat action games. By all means, include options for hard-core people, but please include a way to breeze through.

  3. Reward the hard-core with game rewards, not story rewards.

    Lots of games make the secret ending only available after running through hell and killing the devil himself. Although this does make the elite feel awesome (as I did when I beat the secret boss in Cave Story), most players will never see this content. Find something else to reward hard-core players with, like special loot or secret dungeons - things related to gameplay. Hard core players will appreciate this, and people who are just there for the story won't feel like second-class citizens.

  4. No micro-management

    I think party management is great, and I applaud any inventory system that leads to interesting decisions. However, what's not interesting is sorting my socks for optimum performance. This is a call for two things: first, put more thought into interfaces, and second, if there's a situation where the best choice is obvious, but tedious to do, make the computer do it for me.

  5. If I have to look at a FAQ, the system is broken. Persona 4 features a complicated scheme for creating summoned monsters based on collecting and merging tarot cards. I'm not a completionist, and I don't care if I perfectly min/max the system, but the system is so abstract that I'm always afraid of making bad decisions. Again, I'm sure some of you loved this system and had no complaints with it. My point is that non-expert players should be able to grasp enough variables to weigh the options in front of them without consulting an online guide.

There's a million ways to skin a cat, and a just as many ways to design an RPG. This is the path we chose, and we'll go into more detail later about how we plan on living up to our own standards in Defender's Quest.

Thanks for reading - we'll get into more design details next week, I just felt I owed a full-fledged response to everyone's passionate comments :)

-Lars out

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at


[quote]However, I understand people who say story should be front and
center. Those are the kinds of games I loved as a kid. So, let me clarify - the battle system isn’t the most important system, just the most important system to get right. Especially if 90% of your time is spent in battle.[/quote]

For the people who say the story should be front and center in an RPG, let me point out something to them.

Many, many RPGMaker games. You can be friggin’ Shakespeare and have beautifully written, compelling dialogue everywhere…

… and if you make me suffer through a poorly slapped together turn-based RPG system to see the rest of it, I will promptly uninstall your game and forget about your product. If you have to do something, you do it right… If you can’t do a decent RPG battle system but have a knack for stories? You might want to consider one of three options:

  1. Getting out of the RPG business and into the visual novel ‘game’ business. Digital: A Love Story did this decently. By making a game with bad RPG mechanics and a good story, all you do is bore the RPG addicts who have seen everything you’re offering done elsewhereand done better, and making things tediously unpleasant for the story lovers.

  2. Teaming up with someone who can put together some decent mechanics to make the combat worthwhile.

  3. Adding in an option to skip the combat outright. Everlong did this and I appreciated it immensely for NG+ runs, since all my characters were maxed out.

Epic Battle Fantasy 4 has essentially no real story, but a lot of addictive mechanics, and that’s what it wants to offer people.

Cthulhu Saves The World likewise gives you a morphine drip of excitement and wanting to level up by giving you one of two options to choose from on level-up. The story is tongue-in-cheek and basic, but you want to know how you’ll get to specialize your characters after that next little bit of EXP.

Penny Arcade Chapter 4, also by the Zeboyd guys, had a fantastic story… and some of the worst turn based combat I’ve ever seen, a massive step down from PA Chapter 3. Every battle felt like a chore, just sitting through the first few turns hoping to build up some energy so I could actually do things. I didn’t enjoy the combat one bit, but I had played through 3 chapters and wanted the conclusion to my story.

If you’re making an RPG, the battle system is by far the most important thing to get right. Or at the very least, to not get wrong. I may still be bitter about PA Chapter 4 and all my time wasted generating energy in battle. :stuck_out_tongue:

Thankfully, you managed to nail the marriage of mechanics and story perfectly in DQ1. Just keep that up in DQ2 and I’ll be happy. :heart: I hope you’re going the Suikoden -> Suikoden 2 route with DQ2, by which I mean keeping all the main core concepts, polishing them and building on the things the fans loved. Change for the sake of change happened with Suikoden 3 and 4 and made so many, many people sad. :frowning:

Anyhow, that’s my input. Great article as always. :smile:


Yeah, let’s just say I agree.

And this is why I don’t touch RPG Maker games, and consider Chrono Trigger the reigning king of JRPG type games. Still.


Some RPGMaker games can get everything perfect, but it is a rarity.

Exit Fate, for example. An amazing battle system and flawless story. I’m always disappointed it didn’t get remade into a proper game for purchase.


Touhou Wandering Souls, albeit a fangame, is freaking awesome, one of the best action RPGs I have ever played.


Persona 4 is actually a game I dislike for the story/progression of character development, especially after jumping into it from p3 and expecting something dense like its predecessor. I find the battle and equipment to be standard for jrpg to me, since I was able to pick it up just fine, whereas trying to play through the first persona game now, I’m finding that there’s a lot more going on in the first battle system than the third and fourth one. (Which makes me wonder why they changed it, aside from simplicity’s sake)


Actually… yes, I pretty much agree. Nowadays, I play most games mostly for their story value, and while I appreciate some good and creative gameplay, I can get very annoyed when dull and repetitive gameplay hinders the progression of the story and would rather have it gone altogether (even if it became “visual novel” instead of “RPG”; I care little about genre as long as the game doesn’t make me go through typical platforming challenges again).

2 and 3 - very much agree, as a player I really like to be able to learn the story without much effort (I’d mention playing Touhou on easy mode whenever it grants me a good ending, but Touhou’s standards of “easy” are far from breezing through, so it’s probably not a good example ^^"). That’s why I liked experience settings in DQ and found Bravely Default’s encounter rate regulation to be a good design choice. :wink:

4 - yes, so much yes. Being a programmer, sometimes I wish some game would just expose some interface for equipment management so that I could write a program to do all that equipping, selling etc. automatically. Also, in some Flash roguelike people were clearly liking how clearly superior equipment would be automatically picked, and quickly inferior equipment automatically discarded, so we aren’t alone in that. ^^


Wow you guys sure resurrected an ancient blog post thread.

…hmmm, says the forum convo thread was created 5 days ago, even though the original blog article was originally written 4 years ago:

Weird :slight_smile:


The same happened with some other blog entries.

For example, the “Super Energy Metropolis Prototype” Blog posts appearded a few day ago, even so they’re from 2009 -.-

If you hadn’t mentioned it I would have thought that this is recent, even so it actually isn’t.
So whatever converts Blog Posts to threads in the forums here just recently had some kind of hiccup and posted some blog entries that are way old ^ ^


Geezus I don’t remember this blog at all! And I think I read everything!


Yeah, I saw it do that with some posts about a week ago, and have them cut off at half too