This is a work in progress. Please, don’t mind the dust.
The title up there may be a little strong. My relationship with digital RPGs is really more of a love/hate thing… but if I’m being honest, it’s mostly hate. Maybe 65% hate, if you want to put an arbitrary percentage to it.
I want to love them and I love certain things about them, but deep down inside, I hate the blasted things. I dive in hoping for a grand adventure that transports me to another world, and instead I end up with a snarl on my face, wrestling over where to spend a shiny new skill point.
The root of the problem is that I’m an action gamer at heart — my deepest desire is to make my digital avatar dance madly around an arena while shredding enemies to pieces. I play games primarily for the feeling of mastering new skills, conquering challenges through reactions, wit, and expert control.
RPGs represent something different, though. They aren’t so much about how I develop as a player, but rather how my character develops inside their world. This is enforced by a family of rules (gameplay mechanics) found throughout the genre, and it’s these rules that rest like a jagged thorn at the center of my seething, uncontrollable mostly-hatred.
I can’t fault you if you’re thinking that I should perhaps avoid RPGs altogether and stick to my beloved action titles, but I keep coming back to them in search of something. I want to play in their wonderfully complex and interactive worlds, and I want to feel like I’m participating in a dynamic story. I’m frankly desperate for these experiences.
But even if I wanted to avoid these core RPG gameplay mechanics, it’s quickly becoming impossible. They’re so abstract that they can be applied to anything, and they’re rapidly seeping into everything — from shooters to real life (see gamification).
In the first part, I’ll describe these core RPG mechanics in the context of a hastily constructed strawman, an imaginary ARPG (Action Role-Playing Game) that is perfectly generic in every conceivable way. We’ll call it Lords of Steel, because that’s just about the most generic name a person has ever imagined.
With each mechanic, I’m primarily interested in what it represents, how it works, and how it affects player behavior. I’ll also discuss how that mechanic is integrated into the fictional game world, because it can have a direct impact on immersion.
But more than anything, I’m going to whine, moan, and throw a tantrum over them.
The second part will shift gears, focusing instead on the narrative conceits in RPG world design. More than any other type of game, RPGs aim to show you convincing worlds and tell powerful stories within them, but their ability to do so is hobbled by unexamined narrative choices. I intend to examine them thoroughly… then throw pies at their faces.
I’m not just here to complain, though. In the final part, I’ll describe alternative gameplay mechanics that accomplish similar goals, but are better suited to skill-based action games. To do that, I’ll describe the design of a hypothetical game called Artifact.
Yeah, I’m a wannabe game designer.
So, let’s have at it.
Part 1 — Gameplay Mechanics
Before we dig into the meat of my tirade, I want to lay some groundwork about abstraction and how it applies to game design.
All games are fundamentally abstract, which is to say that they’re not literal activities. They typically represent some real activity, but in a disconnected and symbolic way.
Games like Sudoku exist at one end of the spectrum, being a perfectly abstract rule-set that doesn’t represent anything at all. It’s non-metaphorical and self-contained.
Most games, however, sit somewhere in the middle-ground, having some metaphorical relationship to another activity. Players aren’t literally swinging a sword, searching through an orc’s pockets, or casting spells. Instead, they’re pressing buttons and sliding a mouse around, which the program translates into on-screen activity.
So, all games are at least partially abstract, but it’s nevertheless possible to grade how abstract their particular mechanics are.
In the context of controls, RPGs tend toward the more abstract end of the scale. The player presses a button and in response, the character speaks an incantation, produces a series of arcane gestures with their hands, and summons a hound from the depths of hell. In the most abstract examples, the player chooses both their attack and target through a menu, and then watches the action unfold. The player’s actions are disconnected from the character’s.
This can be contrasted with shooters, which have a low-level of control abstraction (at least when it comes to targeting). The player moves their mouse and the on-screen reticle wanders in a one-to-one relationship. This is a more literal abstraction, in that the character is closely mirroring the player’s own actions.
Abstraction doesn’t only apply to controls, of course. Every interaction within a game world is metaphorical in nature, and that metaphor sits somewhere on the continuum between literal and abstract. In this respect, RPG worlds are largely defined by their preponderance of literal concepts (creatures that wander areas, imitating natural behavior); while action games traditionally feature a larger number of abstract systems (enemies who continually spawn until the player reaches a designated checkpoint).
Keep in mind, though, that there may be multiple ways to represent the same concept that are equally abstract. Take for instance the old shooter cliché of collecting first-aid kits to restore health, and compare that to the more recent style in which players automatically heal after a few seconds. They both symbolize the same concept in a fairly abstract way (neither would be an effective treatment for multiple gunshot wounds in the real world), but they nevertheless function differently and demand different behaviors from the player.
Inventory systems in RPGs are another example. One game may allow a player to carry up to 50 pounds of gear, while in another, they can carry whatever will fit on an inventory grid. Again, they both represent the same concept in different ways, while being roughly as abstract as each other.
Even in intensely literal games, there will tend to be some abstract mechanics which exist purely for gameplay purposes. For instance, having multiple lives and being able to save the game are both tools that make challenge more bearable, but they’re rarely rooted in either the real world or the game’s fictional world. Another example would be a scoreboard, which exists to give the player goals and feedback, but is completely abstract. It doesn’t represent anything at all.
While play-centric mechanics like these are undoubtedly effective, they can also pose problems if the goal is to immerse the player. If they stand starkly apart from the game world, they can’t help but distract from it, serving as a constant reminder that this is just a game.
Now, putting the focus squarely back on RPGs, what we find is that most interactions have been given essentially the same mechanic: a die is rolled, two numbers are compared (with modifiers), and the higher number wins. It doesn’t matter if the character is firing a rifle, hitting on a bartender, or cooking a sad omelette later that night — they’re all calculated the same way.
This is the pinion at the heart of common RPG design: addition and subtraction, a random number, and a comparison. The fine details vary from game to game, but the core method is the same.
Meanwhile, the on-screen character actions are just an evocative illustration… one which tends to be stiff and unconvincing. A barbarian swings an axe through a canned animation, while the results of the attack are determined by a simple formula. The math accounts for dodges, parries, and occasional clumsy fumbles (in some vague sense), but what the player sees are two hulks swinging weapons and grunting until one of them falls.
These mechanics owe their origins to the pen-and-paper games of the 1970s, where they were intended as little more than fodder for the player’s imagination. The player declares what ability they intend to use, rolls their dice, and lets the results play out in their mind’s eye. By necessity, the mechanics had to be simple enough for human players to compute, and their use typically accounted for a small fraction of the play time.
Some games featured more complex systems with dozens of charts that needed to be cross-references for effects, offering results far more varied (and creative) than simply losing hit points. These proved unpopular, though, and persist mostly in niche products… not because they’re bad or poorly thought-out, but rather because players found them obnoxious to calculate.
Meanwhile, the simple roll-dice-and-compare mechanics have taken root and spread, not only across digital RPGs, but now the rest of gaming as well. The interesting damage tables remain unexplored in the back of the book, while our quad-core 64-bit processors perform high school math.
In the following sections, we’ll look at the ways these methods are predominantly used in modern RPGs (and everything else that adopts them), and I’ll explain precisely why I want to bludgeon the lot of them with a hammer.
And away we go…
Character Development: Numerology and the Modern Hero
Welcome to Lords of Steel, the world’s most generic digital RPG. One of the core features of the game is character development, which is broken into two equally important parts — I call these personal growth and gear.
Personal growth refers to the way a character’s vital statistics and abilities advance throughout the game. The character grows stronger, smarter, and more worldly.
In our game, personal growth is built on experience (or XP), a running numerical count of the character’s accomplishments. The character is allowed to level up when that count reaches a predetermined goal, granting them points to spend on improved stats and skills.
All available skills are presented to the player through a menu and arranged in a tree-structure that controls how and when they can be acquired. For instance, the player may need to purchase the advanced blocking skill before they can take the shield bash (which is perfectly reasonable). This tree is further broken up by level requirements, meaning the character may also need to reach level 3 before they can buy that shield bash.
Conceptually, personal growth mechanics are a metaphor for the human experience. We change, improve, and learn new skills as we march through life. The system I’ve just described is the one used by most RPGs to represent that process, and it’s among the most literal and complex such systems in use.
I don’t find it to be a particularly convincing metaphor, though. Characters toil away at a variety of tasks, leading to scheduled epiphanies that allow them to instantly pluck a new skill out of the air, growing stronger/faster/smarter in that same instant.
The closest real-world analogue would seem to be a child’s years in school. They are hopelessly outmatched by opponents a few grades above them, and they can just as easily overpower those a few grades below. As time passes, the character steadily graduates through grades, growing stronger and learning age-appropriate skills along the way. Essentially, leveling up in this metaphor is like returning from summer vacation.
The player, of course, is enrolled in an accelerated two-week program, while the rest of the world is trucking along through public school.
How about the other side of character development? Gear refers to the player’s ability to outfit their character with weapons and armor. Items differ from one another by numerical stats (how protective they are; how much damage they deal), but sometimes also in special effects and modifiers (reduces fire damage; poisons enemies; amplifies critical hits).
The gear system in Lords of Steel works in lock-step with personal growth, only allowing access to more powerful gear once a required level (or stat) is met. A rare sword may quadruple the current one’s damage, but the character can’t use it until they have enough experience.
Now, the overall gear concept is sensible — a player finds better equipment and uses it to augment their abilities. The level-locking mechanics, though, appear to exist purely for gameplay reasons. It’s difficult to imagine a character in any sort of fictional world failing to hold a sword because they hadn’t stabbed enough rats yet. “I’ll surely be able to pick it up sometime tomorrow,” the rapidly evolving hero thinks.
As it’s completely abstract, we have to question this mechanic’s purpose, and I believe it’s there purely to drive player compulsion. It’s a dangling carrot, and it feels manipulative rather than fun.
Character Development & Power-Scaling
The interactions between a player’s stats and their equipment are quite complex. Damage, for instance, is determined by the type of attack (10 damage), added to a random number (+6), the character’s strength stat (+12) and the damage rating of the weapon (+5), then multiplied by the weapon’s modifiers, bonuses from magic charms, and any applicable skills (+27% all told) (yeesh!). This final number, minus the enemy’s defense stat, is subtracted from their health.
A game’s particular formulas aren’t ever explained to the player, making decisions between similar bonuses sometimes nebulous (“Is it better to take the tennis bracelet with +5% damage, or the sombrero that gives +4 strength?”). Instead, the player must rely on feedback from the game’s interface, either a damage estimate in their character sheet, or else the red number floating over a damaged enemy’s head.
The primary effect of character development is power-scaling, which is to say that the player grows more powerful during the course of their adventure, able to deal and sustain more damage. In Lords of Steel, that scale covers an order of magnitude (e.g., damage starts around 10-20, but finishes around 100-200).
While ostensibly a metaphor for training and weapon quality, the scale is utterly ludicrous. A terrible sword in the real world tends to be roughly as deadly as the greatest blade ever forged, while low-level swords in RPGs may as well be wet socks. Meanwhile, the player character itself begins their adventure as a feeble crone, and finishes as a living weapon of mass destruction.
If we imagine that Lords of Steel is a linear adventure, which is to say that it strictly controls where the player travels, then the power-scaling is essentially meaningless. It functions as a treadmill (or Red Queen game), creating an illusion of growth while in reality maintaining a steady equilibrium. The player feels like they’re growing more powerful, but they’re really just staying the same.
If Lords of Steel is instead an open world adventure, giving the player freedom to wander and explore at will, character development works as a gating mechanism — it controls where they can explore by populating areas with enemies they can’t defeat. For example, a level 7 character won’t survive long in a level 12 dungeon, because their 20-30 damage attacks are hopelessly outpaced by a corrupted unicorn’s 90-100 damage kicks and bites. The player faces certain defeat no matter how they approach the situation, and their only recourse is to grind up stats and equipment in more forgiving zones.
(Some RPGs feature a mixture of the two systems — they’re open world adventures, populated by enemies appropriate to the player’s current level. In my opinion, this is possibly the worst of both worlds because of how badly it breaks immersion.)
If we ignore the numerical aspects and instead focus on skills, character development provides an effective and interesting way of diversifying gameplay. The idea of players gaining new abilities that allow them to play in a variety styles is exciting.
Much of the time, though, they have to choose between gaining a new skill and spending that point to keep an owned skill relevant. Their ability to grow and differentiate is stunted by the need to keep pace on the treadmill.
As a general concept, I unabashedly love character development. I’m excited to see my character grow, gain new abilities, and become a better adventurer. I just despise these particular mechanics. I wince every time my sword bounces off a high-level rat’s hide, and I grind my teeth whenever I’m offered skills unrelated to how I’ve been playing. Worst of all, when I spend several hours worth of experience on a new ability that turns out to be garbage, I start making a face like I’m getting an ulcer.
I think I may be getting an ulcer.
These specific character development systems are strange and abstract, and by virtue of being disconnected from the game world, they efficiently demolish my suspension of disbelief.
Of course, any gameplay mechanic is forgivable as long as it’s fun… but this isn’t my idea of a good time. As I wander through Lords of Steel’s majestic fantasy world full of dragons and floating islands, the game keeps nagging me to go over a spreadsheet, and I hate it.
Potions: Drinking to Win
Effective fighting in Lords of Steel requires a player to keep track of two key resources: health and mana.
Health is a number that neatly defines how close a character is to dying. The player’s big burly titan may have several hundred hit points, which slough off while fighting hordes of skeletons and orcs. When the count reaches zero, the character drops dead.
Meanwhile, mana is magic fuel. Wizardly characters prance around in robes casting spells at the press of a button, each one consuming mana points proportional to their strength. The spell fails to fire if there isn’t enough gas in the tank, but luckily, the tank constantly refills itself.
In Lords of Steel, that fuel tank also powers skills, making them largely interchangeable with spells. I’ve decided to just refer to skills as spells from here on in, because they both walk and talk like ducks. Notably though, in some other games where skills do not depend on mana, they rely on a third resource, stamina, which functions exactly like another mana tank.
Health and mana both function as metaphors for real-ish phenomena, and they’re elegant and easy mechanics to implement. They’re also simplistic and reductive, and fail to interact with the game world in any meaningful fashion.
This is especially true of health, which transforms characters into walking bags of hit points. A character’s health level has zero effect on their in-game behavior, such that having 500 health is just the same as only having 2. The wounded character never needs to bandage a gash or mend a broken bone, and they’re no less capable then they were when healthy. They’re just more likely to fall down and die if a monster should look at them funny.
(All of that’s equally true of action games, incidentally. Carrying on…)
The effect is less pronounced for mana, which seems to be a more accurate metaphor for a person’s stamina. My issue here is the reductive quality — in a fantastical world full of heroes defying the very laws of nature, the ability to wrestle with ancient and chaotic forces boils down to an ATM transaction. The greatest wizard is the one with enough mana to spend on expensive spells.
Simple as they may be, though, none of it’s particularly ridiculous. The metaphorical basis for both health and mana is sensible but unimaginative. Everything boils down to a transaction — the player pays for combat in blood, and for spells in spirit. (Aside: It’s a wonder no game’s ever had spells cost 9.99 mana, just to see if players will cast them more.)
No, health and mana aren’t ridiculous… but potions are.
In Lords of Steel, the player can replenish either health or mana in a fraction of a second by gulping a potion.
Potions are stupid. I’m not going to sugar-coat this in any kind of diplomatic language. They are just flat-out dumb. It’s telling that potion drinking is never, ever shown in-game, because it would make clear how absolutely, fantastically stupid they are.
Imagine a battle-hardened warrior slashing away at foes with one hand and endlessly guzzling gallons of red fluid with the other. All the while, their every bleeding wound magically closes up, their bones snap back into place, and their bruises disappear.
The way heroes drink potions in some games, they should have red and blue stains down their shirts, while the dungeon floors under their feet should be littered with empty bottles.
Potions are so immersion breaking and ridiculous that they’re quietly reserved for the player alone. When a friendly NPC (non-player character) is sick or mortally wounded on the battlefield, they never knock back a Red Bull, burp and wander home. Neither does the dark and twisted abomination that the player’s about to strike down. (How obnoxious would that be, right?)
Potions are a cheat, a shallow mechanic that exists solely for gameplay purposes. They’re the player character’s invisible super-power, never questioned nor spoken of by other characters. If such a thing existed outside the player’s inventory, NPCs would never leave home without them. Odds are, they’d sip them at every meal while discussing the nutty pine scent of one, or the burnt orange peel flavor of another.
And yet, they occur in such quantities that civilization must surely spend day and night churning them out, all so the player can drink them during their epic and perilous quest. Worse, the player can carry thirty of the blasted things while sneaking just as well as the most devious house cat.
I have no idea why they never break in combat, raining glowing splatter all over the walls.
Mechanically, potions in Lords of Steel short circuit the economics of combat, adding what’s ultimately a cheap thrill for players facing difficult or unwinnable fights. Hurt and broken, staring at a red and flashing screen with their heart thumping in their throat, the poor beleaguered player reaches down and taps the give-me-more-health button.
Voila. They’re healed.
That, more or less, is why I think health and mana are unimaginative, and why potions are just skull-crushingly idiotic.
Loot: The Heroic Junk Dealer
One of the main attractions in Lords of Steel is loot (loot!). The player character rampages across the game world, an unstoppable engine of brutality that litters the ground with mangled corpses, broken barrels, and heaps of glittering treasure.
Treasure comes in two forms: gold and gear. Found gold remains a pittance throughout the adventure, just enough to keep the player stocked up on potions but always short of buying a modestly useful dagger.
Instead, the real treasure is all the discarded gear. Every fight produces a new selection of arms and armor, handily marked for rarity, market price, and useful statistics.
What’s not necessarily clear to the player is that this is a very nicely decorated slot machine. The player pulls the handle by killing a foe, then the computer generates a few random numbers and dispenses a prize. Most of the time, the prizes are about as good as the player’s current equipment, but are occasionally more powerful and valuable.
This is highly addictive for some players, and for a few, it’s the entire reason they play.
I’m not one of them. Instead, I end up feeling like a junk collector… the vacuum cleaner of the fantasy world, sucking up every last piece of scrap metal and occasionally finding a hidden gem. Even when I’m being choosy, my bag-of-holding grows distended, swollen with swords and warhammers and boots and helmets. I’m a walking armory, marching across the apocalyptic hellscape with enough equipment to start a medium-sized insurrection…
…all so I can sell it back in town, keeping 2 or 3 core pieces… and another 2 that I’ll be able to use next level… oh, and that extra amulet that protects against acid… etc.
This mechanic constantly asks the player to weigh and measure small differences in items. Does it swing 1% faster? Is it enchanted? Does it do 2% more damage? What kind of damage? Can it be improved?
Most importantly, how much can I sell it for?
The net effect is that these worlds of adventure are buried under a blizzard of junk. The hero can’t walk through a room without finding a half-dozen new items for their backpack, which they’ll quickly sell in order to pay off bills. In all the ways that count, the hero is the world’s greatest arms dealer, forever flooding the market with ancient and arcane weapons of facial destruction.
While each item is graphically different and defined by unique statistics and effects, it otherwise works exactly like the rest of its kind. The player’s personal attachment to any item is fleeting because it so quickly becomes obsolete.
After a short while, it’s all just undifferentiated junk. It’s junk that exists to support the slot machine mechanic, driving the player compulsively into the next pile of junk, ever hopeful they’ll find that elusive silver dagger that does +20 holy damage.
On a conceptual level, loot is a defining impulse for the player. They’re driven forward to acquire more of these rare and unique pieces, but only in an aimless and randomized fashion. They may know the qualities they’re looking for, but they have to sort through a mountain of garbage to find a match.
Although this wanton lust for loot drives the player, it’s rarely their character’s core motivation. They’re instead out to rid the world of evil or seek vengeance for some heinous wrongdoing, and the loot is just a consolation prize.
When player and character motivations mismatch, it can pose serious problems to narrative. It often results in animated cinematics that seem out of place, as if they’re describing a different world than the one the player is inhabiting.
It’s also worth noting that heroes in other sorts of fiction seldom spend time digging through broken vases or dead men’s pockets, and I don’t remember any of them toting around a Santa-sack full of arms and armor to sell. In comparison, the RPG character is a voracious scavenger who profits from every kill, a fact that’s never reflected in the game’s narrative.
There appears to be little integration of any of these concepts into the game world, in fact. On the global scale, there’s such a profusion of ancient, rare, and enchanted gear that I have to imagine a monstrous industrial machine churning away to support it, rather than the occasional bored blacksmith hammering away at his forge. Fantasy universes apparently outsource their manufacturing to China, just like we do.
On the smaller scale, we find characters routinely carrying several full suits of armor and as many swords, axes, lances, wands, and staves; but (like potions) this massive luggage is never vaguely hinted at on-screen. They exist in an alternate dimension separate from the game world, and any attempt to illustrate that would snap any last shred of believability.
The same problem applies to gold, more or less. I understand the practical benefit of allowing the player instant access to their fortune, but when my knight is somehow trucking around 50,000 gold coins (a currency literally worth its weight), my suspension of disbelief strains badly.
And that leads us to the strange economic realities of Lords of Steel. NPCs rarely have more than 20 gold coins on-hand (too little to buy even the rustiest axe), while the player stumbles across ten times that in their first few minutes of play. At the same time, vendors always have gear worth more than the hero’s acquired savings, and will only buy found items for a small fraction of their market value. The only logical reason for this setup is to enforce the game’s grind rate.
The loot system in Lords of Steel isn’t realistic, nor does it make even a perfunctory attempt at being internally consistent. It’s simply tacked onto the game to schedule rewards.
And in summary, that’s why I hate the crap out of loot.
Movement: Falling is for the Dead
Let talk about movement and how players control it. In RPGs, these fall primarily into two distinct camps: action-style movement (like Skyrim), and point-and-click movement (like Diablo).
RPGs with action-style controls use a first or third-person perspective, and their movement systems range in complexity from Wolfenstein to Half-Life. The fact that these systems lag behind modern design by 15-20 years is entirely reasonable, because movement isn’t their main attraction.
What I find, though, is even among those games that offer Half-Life’s level of movement, few have the same fluency. Movement tends to feel clumsy and cumbersome. Players are largely confined to a flat field of play, occasionally broken up by a flight of stairs or rolling hill. Characters are unable to climb any wall higher than their knees, despite being depicted as world-class super-athletes.
Moving on, point-and-click RPGs usually present the game from an overhead perspective, and their playing fields are even more flat than RPGs with action-style controls. The bulk of their gameplay happens on flat planes broken up by various furniture and props, with raised platforms, balconies, and bridges added as occasional decorations.
This is also a reasonable and logical decision, because point-and-click control schemes naturally have trouble accounting for changes in elevation. In games that support more complex environments, such as the recent XCOM (a turn-based strategy game), we find an interface that’s much too cumbersome for real-time gaming.
Still, I’m frustrated by how little characters interact with their environment in both point-and-click and action-style games. I understand that RPGs as a class are intended to be more cerebral and complex, and that they’re designed to accommodate players who may not be interested in acrobatics… but still, why is the hero forced to run around a counter rather than leap over it? Why doesn’t the game care when the hero drops onto an enemy from the second-story?
These seem like features that could be integrated into their arithmetic-based mechanics, but they aren’t, and it’s because environmental interaction simply isn’t part of the dominant RPG vision. Designers focus on creating cooler, flashier, and more stylish attacks and spells, to the detriment of all other character interactions.
The functional elements of RPG environments are walls, locked-doors, and the occasional trap, while the rest is essentially immersive set-design. A wall is just an obstacle blocking the player’s path, not a surface to pummel their enemy against; a raging blizzard never makes the player weak, nor must they shield themselves from the desert sun; their flame spells never burn down wooden shacks, and their lightning spells don’t arc chaotically around metal fixtures. The environments are (in the vast majority of RPGs) just obstacles and art. They’re mazes rather than playgrounds.
And the characters that live inside these environs move with a tank-like simplicity. No one ever fumbles a jump, trips and falls to the ground. They can’t throw one enemy into another, buying a moment to escape. They only run, open doors, and jump (when an invisible wall isn’t stopping them).
I’m sure I’m being greedy here, but I want more from my virtual worlds. The fantastical spells and superhuman skills somehow seem all the more ludicrous performed by characters less agile and adroit than an arthritic librarian.
That’s just my frustration at wanting more from games, though. I can’t fault them harshly for failing to provide my arbitrary wishes (though I do… because I’m a bastard).
On the other hand, these simplistic movement systems produce one fierce and undeniable annoyance — long-distance travel. It’s why horses exist in so many games (to speed up the mind-numbing marching), and why instant teleportation is always preferable to a horse.
I hate walking long distances in these games, and I bet you do, too. Sure, it’s neat to explore a dusty road and surrounding patch of wilderness once, but the second trip always feels dry. By the fifth or sixth visit, I’m running on autopilot and thinking about what to cook for dinner.
So, why is travel through known areas so infuriating, when I’ve spent days at a time exploring empty maps in shooters? It’s because action games have honed and refined their movement with an eye toward fun.
Movement in RPGs may have a number of positive qualities, but fun isn’t one of them. Player movement isn’t designed as a source of entertainment, and because of that, it inspires homicidal thoughts in more than 40% of the audience (brought to you by Totally Made-Up Statistics, incorporated).
I’m not even talking about adding new features — simply polishing what’s already there, so that players can more fluidly explore and play in the environments. It just takes a bit more care and effort, and I think it’d be well worth it in order to make travel even an iota less tedious.
Time: The Ultimate Weapon
If we take a step back and look at all of these mechanics together, it becomes clear that the player is being rewarded for exactly one thing — time.
Despite the player’s own abilities, they have to perform rote tasks to develop their character first. They spend time raising scores so they can purchase skills, spells, stats, gear, and potions. In order for each of those to be valuable in the game, the player’s own skill and strategy (their agency) must be at least partially minimized.
This process is called grinding, and some version of it is essential to any character development system. My overarching complaint isn’t about the existence of grinding, though; it’s about this particular implementation, especially when awkwardly grafted onto action games.
To my mind, a good action game is one that requires practice to master. The player is tasked with memorizing and performing complex maneuvers, and their mistakes have repercussions. Increases in power are balanced either by assigning appropriate weaknesses, or else by increasing the difficulty of performance.
Defeating their greatest challenges requires personal mastery and development.
Character development in Lords of Steel stands in direct opposition to these principles, because any danger can be nullified by grinding against enemies that pose little practical threat.
Defeating an RPG’s greatest challenges may require mastery, but the player can offer their time in trade.
Part 2: World Mechanics & Narrative
In the first part, I foamed at the mouth over gameplay and control mechanics in digital RPGs, but that’s not all I hate about them. After all, these are games designed to show us fanciful worlds and tell powerful stories inside of them.
However, the genre relies on a number of narrative clichés and world mechanics that damage their ability to do so, and that’s what we’re going to focus on in this part.
Let’s look at exactly how they’re missing the target.
Odd Jobs — Only The One Need Apply
For me, one of the most glaring and immersion bursting flaws of Lords of Steel is the messianic aspect. The game bravely tries to hide it, offering the player a complex world full of fleshed out characters with their own lives and motivations… but the messiah complex is still in full bloom. It’s baked into the scenery, and it’s hard to miss if you’ve had your morning coffee.
The player is reminded of it every time they run into a computerized villager standing around waiting to hand out a quest, or a downtrodden adventurer who drinks all day waiting to be hired. It’s there whenever the player faces another horde of monsters who live in a locked room, where they guard unsolved puzzle and unplundered treasure.
Simply put, the world is built for the player’s entertainment, and it’s full of other people who obey an entirely different set of rules. The NPC actors are playing a different game, and that fact continually draws attention to itself.
Let’s zoom in a little bit. When the player starts a new character in Lords of Steel, they find themselves trapped on a slave boat with a group of NPC prisoners. There’s a few minutes of conversation, then everyone is dramatically freed when an angry kraken attacks the ship. The player survives and runs off to become an adventurer… while the other prisoners shuffle away and promptly cease to exist.
As the player travels through the world, they never bump into other adventurers selling piles of weapons to vendors. No one else ever takes up the quest to stop the goblin raids, or return the king’s lost sceptre. The poor street urchin on the corner absolutely never grinds through a thousand rats to become the greatest swordsman in all the land.
Meanwhile, NPCs have a handful of abilities that are unavailable to the player. They can unlock doors related to the plot and cast spells that exist only in their inventory. Many of them are immortal until the story demands their death, and they alone have the ability to offer quests.
Despite all the work that goes into making these worlds convincing, the player is a total outlier. They’re a mutant freak gifted beyond reason, playing by their own rules on a quest only they can complete, in a world that’s been waiting for their arrival.
All of this is perfectly practical, of course. Budgets are limited, and technology is always a barrier, so it’s too much to ask developers to create huge, dynamic, thriving worlds governed by complex interactions. It’s also not entirely clear how much fun such a world would offer.
What I could fairly ask, though, is that the developers work a little harder to maintain the illusion. The single-player hero is always going to be the one, but that doesn’t mean they have to feel like it.
The hero doesn’t have to be an alien from another dimension. Every now and again, they could run across allies and competitors who progress the same way they do, and play by the same rules.
It would be enough if the AI occasionally wanted to save the world, too.
NPC Psychology — Enemies & Kiosks
In our generic ARPG, there are two types of NPC: those that hand out jobs and information (kiosks), and those that want the player dead (enemies).
Lords of Steel’s kiosks stand around repeating an idle animation; tapping their foot, sharpening their sword, or a roasting a pig over a fire. They exist to stand on their spot, ready to spout off a bit of drama and give the player a new goal. In some other games, these kiosks exhibit more complex behavior: they leave work at the end of the day, serve their family dinner, go to bed, and rise again in the morning to do it all again. The illusion can be startlingly convincing, but such systems require a lot of work to implement, and often bring a host of bugs (mostly quirky, but often game-breaking).
Enemies meanwhile hang around defined combat zones, living traps lying in wait for the unwary player. When approached, they become murderous & idiotic psychopaths bent on the player’s destruction.
“Explore an amazing fantasy world!” says the back of the box. “March across the desolate wastes, sack ancient castles haunted by malevolent ghosts, and dive into dungeons both dank and dangerous!”
…where everything wants you dead, to the exclusion of all sense or logic.
This goes equally for the rats in the walls and the wolves in the forest; the gangs of skeletons wandering hoary crypts and swarms of spiders skittering across slick cave walls; it even applies to the majestic dragon wheeling about in the cloud darkened sky. If the game considers it evil, its sole aspiration is to end the player’s life.
And who could blame them? These monsters have to contend with a superior being whose power will grow exponentially over the next four hours, becoming as deadly and magnificent as the world’s forgotten gods. They have to attack now because the legion of goblins hiding in the Cave of Shadows will be useless by afternoon, and the brutish orcs will join them sometime before nightfall.
This narrative conceit–a world packed with homicidal maniacs–is present in almost all single-player games, both action and role-playing alike. Since the inception of the medium, the core interaction between the player and every other creature has always been murder, but it seems especially bothersome in RPGs, where so much effort has gone into creating otherwise believable worlds.
The result is that monsters lack any sort of character or individuality. They all follow the same program, attacking like mindless automatons so the player can strike them down.
For me, there are a few measures that define good enemy AI, and the first is behavioral complexity. An enemy who always runs straight at me (or uses another repeated movement pattern) is a boring one. I prefer opponents who are versatile, able to employ a variety of movements, attacks, and strategies to defeat me.
The next measure is interactivity. By that, I’m referring to the ways that enemies maneuver around their environment, coordinate with one another, and react to the player’s movements and attacks.
A foe with little interactivity will circumnavigate obstacles, but only in pursuit of the player. It will ignore its partners as if they don’t exist, and hack away at the player until killed or victorious.
On the other hand, one with high interactivity may use cover, or retreat to restore health. It could use environmental hazards, or try to box the player in where their attacks are less effective. It could react to its allies’ movements, attacking from different directions or baiting the player out. It could react to being hit, and maybe even change weapons to account for the player’s strengths.
We have zombies on one end of the spectrum and human players on the other, and most games feature enemies near to the zombie end of the spectrum. It’s no wonder zombie games are so popular… at least they’re honest about it.
The enemies aren’t the only sociopaths, though. The core of most RPGs is combat, so the player routinely goes about slaying hundreds and hundreds of intelligent (albeit evil) creatures. A lifestyle like that would doubtlessly have some kind of psychological effect on the character, and not a positive one.
But in RPGs, it never does. Every kill simply adds to the player’s accumulated experience, allowing them to grow stronger and gain more amazing abilities. Murder is so commonplace and bereft of narrative weight that the player gives it as much thought as McDonald’s gives their french fries. It’s mass produced, interchangeable, and totally meaningless.
Not that players have much choice in the matter. Mass-murder is in their job description, and few games offer an option to incapacitate or scare enemies away. When your only tool is a warhammer, every problem begins to look suspiciously like a rat.
To be clear, I’ve killed tens of thousands of digital animals, people, dragons, aliens, and lesser gods, and I don’t for a second think any of this turns players into sociopaths. I’m just pointing out that the characters they play most definitely are sociopaths, and it’d be refreshing to have a few more options.
The villagers who clot the streets everywhere have their own mental deficiencies. They never notice the superhuman in their midst, nor react much to that character’s antics. No farmer ever turns his back on the player, deciding that their ruthless ways have gone too far. These characters live in violent nightmare worlds, surrounded by daily atrocities, and they simply aren’t impressed.
It’s all just so simplistic, not to mention grim, hopeless, and cynical. It’s also convenient, in that it directly feeds the loot and experience reward cycles. The player is constantly engaged in fights which they’re statistically favored to win (especially with various potions on hand), all so they can search the gore for loot while their experience meter rises.
These narrative conceits are great for gameplay but terrible for storytelling. They do little to convince me of a lush and believable fantasy world, and settle instead for providing a reliable endorphin rush every ten minutes.
I happen to think single-player game worlds can be much more than that. I want to face monsters that want to live and have some sense of self-preservation; who only attack when they think they have an advantage, and disengage before their last health point disappears.
I want to play games where NPCs react to the atrocities around them, and where human opponents may not actually deserve to die. And if I choose to kill those undeserving foes, I want the game world to judge me appropriately.
But no… everyone in a game world has either been labotomized or contracted rabies. They’re all kiosks and killers, acting out the most simplistic behaviors conceivable.
Books — Digging Up Buried Lore
Another bullet-point on Lords of Steel’s box describes the deep and expansive world developed (but not written) by award winning author Chuck Shundley, creator of the Hammer of Darkness trilogy. It promises history, politics, and a grand mystery beyond imagination.
Lords of Steel has several tools for exposing this world beyond the player’s direct experience, from cinematics and screens of text to overheard chatter and in-game books. All of these can be used to paint a wider picture, and each has its uses.
My focus here is on the books.
I love reading. It’s easily one of my top 5 favorite things in the universe, and I absolutely want to read the hundreds of books scattered around these fantasy worlds. In fact, I’m going to compulsively read them for the first ten hours of play, then eventually give up on them and never read one again.
Why would that be the case?
For me, any piece of writing must either be pleasurable to read or describe something significant. I actually prefer that it be both pleasurable and significant, but in-game books are rarely either. Instead, they’re about random ephemera that could’ve been plucked from any fictional world, and written without humor, beauty, or any particular emotion at all.
My proposed fix is simple enough: hire any of the hungry, desperate writers out there who are struggling to find an audience. No offense to the development teams, but they’re rarely practiced fiction writers, and it shows.
Good writing requires more than just a firm grasp of grammar. One part is understanding story beats and pacing, but an even larger part is understanding significance. A good writer knows which parts are central to the tale, and they’ll know how best to expose and highlight them.
What we find instead are dry and uninteresting stories told in virtual monotone. They recount a legend or fable with the excitement of a Wikipedia article, and worst of all, they tell us nothing useful about the game world.
Sure… we find tales that took place in the game’s world, but nothing that leaves a visible mark or informs our play, nor do we even usually see the sites where these heroic tales took place. The books don’t hint at hidden secrets, or guide us past obstacles (unless they’re left sitting in front of said obstacle). They don’t appraise us of enemy weaknesses, or tip us off about spells that have secret synergies.
They’re just storybooks… Boring, disconnected storybooks.
On the mechanical front, reading puts the game world on pause while the player is busy. It’s a sensible mechanic that both protects the player and makes sure they won’t miss anything around them. Sadly, it also breaks immersion, reminding them once again that they’re in a fictional world that’s ready to take five whenever it’s convenient.
Notably, I’ve never seen a game offer to let me read their books outside of the game… say, in a mobile app, so I can read when I’m looking to kill a few minutes in the real world.
In-game books occasionally offer a bonus or new spell, but the act otherwise has no effect on the character. It doesn’t change their stats or alter their abilities in any way. They’re just little pamphlets scattered around the world, drably written and useless except when a quest explicitly calls for one.
In that, they’re a wasted opportunity… no fun to read, and lacking any reason to exist besides my own compulsive behavior.
I think games could do a whole whopping load better than that.
A Love/Hate Relationship
As I mentioned several billion words ago, I’m a chronic action gamer. Put me in an arena with a dozen other players, and I’ll kill and be killed until the sun comes up. If I’m being honest, though, action games suffer from most of these same issues, so why don’t I judge them as harshly?
It’s because they’re not trying to present complex, interactive, and believable worlds; they’re just building murder-themed amusement parks. I play them for the moment-to-moment excitement and the challenge of mastering precision controls. I think it’s acceptable in that context if the world and its mechanics are window dressing, because I’m far too busy to pay attention to them.
In an RPG, though, the movement and combat mechanics aren’t designed with an eye toward entertainment; they’re simplified and stiff. Run forward and hold a button to swing your sword. Click a key to cast a spell, and another to drink a potion. There’s no challenge or grace to the control. It’s functional, because these other qualities–complexity, immersion, interactivity–are the main attractions. Those are the reasons I play RPGs, and that naturally makes them bigger targets for analysis and criticism.
Unfortunately, the entire genre has settled on the same set of mechanics to add complexity, immersion, and interactivity — namely, experience treadmills, telepathically acquired skills, loot slot machines, health & mana bars, and potions, potions, potions. That’s why I felt comfortable swatting at a strawman… because digital RPGs differ in small details, but the shape always remains the same.
And now all our games–sports action, and even puzzle games–are turning into RPGs, too.
I love what these mechanics represent. Characters should grow, gain new abilities, and find unique weapons to add to their arsenal. I’m even amenable to the idea of potions, despite the high levels of snark I deployed earlier when discussing them.
I love the concepts, but I hate these implementations… especially when they’re transplanted into action games whose core principles stand at odds with them.
I can’t be the only one.
Part III: Drafting a Replacement
I have a lot of different ideas about how RPGs could work differently. Being an action gamer though, what I’m particularly interested in is porting RPG concepts into my preferred genre, and adapting them to fit more naturally.
To explain, I’ll be describing another imaginary game which we’ll call Artifact. It’s the newest title from Hypothetical Studios, the talented folks who brought us the smash hit, Lords of Steel.
Lords of Steel was an RPG at heart, resolving interactions using a dice roll and some arithmetic, while motivating the player with its loot mechanics. It prided itself on providing multiple play-styles, allowing characters to fight, sneak, cast spells, or even talk their way out of situations, supported by a leveling mechanic that improves and diversifies those abilities.
As Artifact is starting on the opposite side of the fence, it naturally approaches these systems from a completely different direction. It’s instead an action game featuring smooth and compelling controls. It also offers a variety of play-styles, but within the context of different action-based genres, and supported by character development mechanics that rely on the player’s own practice and skill.
While Lords of Steel set the player on an epic quest to save the world through their questing and dungeon diving, Artifact instead casts the player as a treasure hunter. This more closely aligns the player and their character’s goals, and allows the game to focus on making the treasure hunt itself enjoyable, satisfying, and integral to the narrative.
It’s tempting to call Artifact an Action-RPG because it has a lot in common with that genre, but the stark difference in perspective calls for a change in terminology. I’m choosing to call this a Role-Playing Action Game, instead.
Let’s dig into the details…
An Action Game at Heart
When picking apart standard RPGs, we looked at character development first and only dug into the other aspects later. That’s because character development is really (in my estimation) the main attraction in modern RPG design. The player is driven by a need to grow more powerful, gain skills, and acquire better equipment, while the moment-to-moment gameplay and questing are there to support those pursuits.
We’ll be starting with Artifact’s control mechanics first because that moment-to-moment interactivity is its main attraction. The four main areas of interest are: movement, combat, magic, and music.
Artifact is played in third-person, with camera distance varying depending on the current action; it’s close over the shoulder during combat, but pulls back when navigating the environment.
Player movement is designed to be fluid and reactive. All characters can walk, run, jump, and climb short walls, and they can further develop acrobatic parkour abilities through play. These include wall-running, swinging across chasms, and even vaulting over enemies.
When the player enters melee combat, movement slows and switches to measured steps, more reminiscent of a fighting game (Soul Caliber, for example). Attacks are also performed much like they are in fighting games.
You’re probably starting to think that I love fighting games, but the truth is that… yeah… I totally love fighting games.
Now, in most such games, a move requires some mixture of button and movement inputs. The traditional fireball from Street Fighter, for instance, requires a quarter-roll of the joystick followed by a punch button. Others might be performed by pressing two buttons at once, a series of buttons while running, or patterns that are even more complex.
In Artifact, each melee weapon-type has roughly 16 moves, which are performed using similar sorts of button combinations. Some require a direction followed by a mouse-click (left + left-mousebutton), while others are patterns of mouse clicks in series (left-mousebutton, then right-mousebutton, then both together).
On the other hand, some defensive skills are performed entirely using movement keys. These include block (hold left + right + back together), parry (tap left + right + forward together), and side-step (tap left + right together). These key combinations are simple to perform but are never used in movement controls, making them prime candidates for these purposes.
While most of that looks familiar, there’s an added bit of complexity in Artifact’s implementation of moves. They require not just the proper button combinations, but also correct timing. If players miss the rhythm by too much, the character fumbles the attack and may be hurt or thrown off-balance.
Magic functions in a completely different way. The player calls up a group of arcane symbols (a school of magic), and then draws a line through those symbols that correspond to their desired spell. This is done in rhythm with the nearest ley line, a beam of pulsing magical energy only visible using wizard-sight (a skill).
Mistakes in timing here cause a spell to fumble, fizzle and fail, while incorrect symbols have more chaotic effects.
How about music? That one seems a bit odd, doesn’t it? In Artifact, music can have a variety of effects on other creatures in the world, including calming, encouraging, and even boosting abilities. The player can also gain access to music skills that are fully magical, summoning otherworldly creatures to their aid, and healing their companions’ wounds. This is designed expressly so that players can, if they choose, play a strictly support role in combat.
Songs are played with very similar mechanics to popular music-games. Players choose sections of music with simple key combos, then perform them using the familiar conveyor-belt found in Rockband, Guitar Hero, and the like.
Those are the four key interaction methods in Artifact–platforming, fighting, spell-casting, and playing music–and each one is designed around player skill. They’re challenging, hopefully engaging, and meaningfully tied to the player’s own level of mastery. And as we’ll see, they get easier as the player progresses.
That brings us to Artifact’s idea of character development, which is superficially similar to standard RPGs, but differs quite a lot below the surface.
Personal Growth In Action
In Lords of Steel, personal growth was built on collecting experience points that the player spends on new abilities. Players gained XP, leveled up, and bought skills.
Artifact flips this convention on its head and puts skills squarely in the spotlight — players collect and master skills, which allow them to level up when they’ve learned enough.
This is Artifact’s Art System.
Players have three different methods to gain skills:
- Direct Observation
A player can gain a skill by repeatedly watching others perform it; e.g., an enemy using a particular sword swing, or an ally rolling out of the way. Each time the player successfully keeps their reticle on a target performing a skill, they get closer to learning that skill themselves. This works for all skills except those that are Arcane (which require either of the other 2 methods below).
Players can gain skills by reading in-game books that describe them. The world is packed full of books that discuss techniques, strategies, and other information about the game world. The content is as informative as a game’s wiki or guide-book, but written to fit into the world fiction.
If players find an NPC with the relevant skill, they can often strike a deal for training. This is presented as a tutorial, with the teacher demonstrating the skill and instructing the player in its use.
No matter how the player gains a new skill, it always begins at a novice level, which requires precision to perform correctly. As the player correctly performs the skill, the timing aspect becomes more forgiving until the skill is finally mastered.
This is the core of character development in Artifact. Players acquire skills from the game world, and practice them until mastered. They can move up to the next level when they’ve mastered seven skills (or five, if a suitable trainer is available).
But… what’s the point of levels, then?
Every art form (swordplay, acrobatics, playing the lyre, the school of fire magic, etc.) supports three Mastery Levels: Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master.
The mastery level controls what skills the player can acquire (those of the current level), and which skills can be chained together (those of the previous level). Without chaining, skills have a small waiting period between them.
To illustrate the entire system, imagine a new player runs across a great warrior performing the God-Hand Axe Swipe (a master skill). They simply won’t be able to learn it, no matter what they do. Instead, they’ll need to spend more time adventuring, learning easier skills, and getting better at the game.
When they reach the journeyman level at axe fighting, the player will have gained the ability to chain any number of apprentice skills together (slash, chop, uppercut), while using any journeyman skill (two-arm chop, leaping slash) will end a combo.
Once they hit the master level, they’re able to chain together apprentice and journeyman skills freely, with only master skills breaking the combo. They’ll finally also be able to return to the great warrior from earlier and trade a gilded dragon egg for the God-Hand Axe Swipe skill.
When the player finally acquires all the available axe skills several days later… they’ll be an incredibly versatile axe fighter. No bonuses, enhancements, or 80% increases to axe damage — just a set of skills suited to different situations, supported by a game of finding, learning, and mastering them.
As compared to traditional RPG mechanics, Artifact’s system turns everything on its head, and as a result, creates something both more believable and better suited to action-focused games.
Games like Lords of Steel portray skills as some type of ethereal phenomena… an idea just floating out in the void, waiting to be purchased once the player earns another 20 XP for returning a little boy’s puppy. In Artifact, skills are front and center. They exist in the game world, and the character can seek them out using intuitive methods. Gaining these skills is what allows them to advance in their art.
This replaces a highly abstract metaphor with one that’s remarkably literal. Not only does it more closely represent the way we learn skills and master art forms in real life, but also engages both the player and their character in the same action. They literally learn skills together.
What about stats, though? Every computerized hero is defined by a handful of numbers that describe their strength, swiftness, intelligence, charm, foot odor, and whatever else… aren’t they?
Not so in Artifact (shocking twist!). When building a character, players choose from three archetypes–smaller, medium, and taller–and a whole host of aesthetic options (gender, skin color, facial design).
Once their character is built, they enter Artifact’s world with two physical conditions (bulk & agility), and two mental conditions (focus & charm).
Each condition starts at average, and can be trained up to high by using associated skills. Alternately, conditions can degrade to low, but only in certain situations.
Let’s take a look at the different conditions in detail.
When a character performs physically demanding actions (carrying or pushing heavy items, swinging large weapons, wearing plate armor), they naturally gain bulk. High bulk is reflected on the character as swollen musculature, while low bulk makes the player thin and reedy. It has the following gameplay effects:
- High bulk makes the player more resistant to knock-downs. Heavy attacks will tend to stagger them instead of knocking them to the ground.
High bulk adds extra knock-back to the player’s own attacks, raising the likelihood of staggering or knocking-down opponents.
Increased bulk speeds up attacks with heavy weapons, but slows light and medium weapons slightly. Low bulk slightly reduces the speed of all weapons.
High bulk reduces the effects of weapon fumbles (stagger, self-damage, etc.).
High bulk allows the player to carry more rations and an extra weapon (4 total). Low bulk reduces ration capacity, and reduces total weapons to 2. (Note: the ration disparity is largely ornamental, as the lower bulk character requires less food.)
Low bulk allows players to jump slightly farther.
Running, jumping, and tricking on the environment raises the characters agility. This is visually represented in their animations: low agility characters pose and animate stiffly, while high agility characters are graceful and stylish.
Agility has the following gameplay effects:
- High agility increases the player’s run speed, and the length of their jumps and wall-runs. Low agility lowers their speed, and reduces them to basic jumps and climbing.
High agility gives the player the safe-fall technique (performed with a quick key tap before hitting the ground), which reduces fall damage. This makes acrobatics less dangerous, and allows the player to recover more quickly after being knocked down.
High agility makes the character move more smoothly through their environment, improving their stealth. They slide by obstacles instead of bumping into them.
High agility greatly increases the speed of light weapons, and moderately increases the speed of medium weapons.
Low agility has a slightly negative effect on charm.
Focus is increased by reading, casting spells, and continually keeping the reticle on enemies. It’s a measure of the player’s ability to tune out distractions, and is reflected in the character’s eyes (dim = low focus; glowing = high focus). It has the following gameplay effects:
- All players have the concentrate skill, which allows them to slow time. High focus increases the length of the effect and how frequently it can be used, while low focus has the opposite effect.
High focus allows the player to retain wizard-sight while being attacked, allowing magic-users to make better use of nearby ley lines (learn more in the magic section below). Low focus prevents wizard-sight entirely.
High focus allows players to more quickly acquire skills by direct observation, and even allows them to learn arcane skills that way (through great effort).
High focus increases the speed of skill training.
High focus makes players more terrifying to their enemies, causing some to flee in horror.
Charm is increased by interacting with NPCs and playing musical instruments. It can also be affected by the choice to show enemies mercy. It has the following effects:
- High charm makes it easier to attract followers (even with a low reputation), while low charm makes it difficult for even high reputation characters to do the same.
High charm increases the range of song skills, and allows them to be chained more quickly. Low charm enforces a longer cool down between song skills.
High charm increases the player’s awareness, which causes the noises of dangerous creatures to be played at a higher volume. Low charm dulls the volume of anything not in line-of-sight.
High charm causes wild animals to more often ignore the player.
Conditions – How They Interact
It’s not enough to simply raise a condition to a high rating — the player must continue using it to maintain their conditioning. For instance, if the player has high focus, but changes play-style so that they’re not using as many spells, they’ll drop back down to average.
To make matters even more difficult, training up one condition in a set will cause the other to degrade at a higher rate (e.g., if bulk is raised, then agility degrades more quickly), meaning it now must be exercised to remain at average level or else drop down to a low rating. More exercise than normal is also required to reach and mantain a high rating.
If both conditions in a set are rated high, the player must train both at the higher rate to maintain them. This also increases the degradation of both conditions in the other set (+ Bulk & Agility, – Focus & Charm), and they’ll both drop down to low unless exercised. These effects stack, so that maintaining all four conditions is incredibly demanding (though not impossible).
All conditions are directly connected to in-game actions, so the entire system works to reinforce the player’s own behavior. Their character gets better at whatever they do, and gets worse at what they ignore.
The degradation mechanics (and associated penalties and modifiers) add meaningful choice to character development, as well as their continuing responsibilities to maintain it. Players can accept the penalties with specialized characters, or work extra hard to develop characters with all-around competence.
Both of these systems (art and conditioning) represent new abstractions for personal growth, with gameplay requirements that mesh more naturally with the action genre. Rather than focusing on the endless power treadmill, the player instead grows more versatile or specialized by directly interacting with the game world. They play the game however they wish, and their character is automatically tailored by their choices.
Getting the Gear You Love
As I argued earlier, the central motivation in Lords of Steel was the loot system. The player was constantly showered with new pieces of gear, some of which have higher level requirements, thus reinforcing the gameplay loop. Players kill monsters to produce more procedural loot, so they can grow stronger, so they can kill more monsters, ad infinitum.
Artifact does away with random loot entirely. Enemy NPCs are equipped with mundane and largely interchangeable equipment, which the player has little motivation to take.
There are enchanted weapons and fabled armors in the game, though — they’re simply not showered down through a slot machine mechanic. Artifact’s world contains a large collection of named weapons and armors, and acquiring them forms the core of the game’s adventure. Players discover these items through books that catalogue their abilities and offer clues about their locations.
For example, the player may notice Lothar’s Helmet of Dominance while perusing the Encyclopedia Artifactum, but the short entry says only that it’s rumored to be near Summerham Village. So, the player sets off, finds the village and chats with the locals, who claim the helmet is hidden inside the Grey Fortress.
The player could head for the fortress immediately, but it’s a huge complex with multiple wings filled with several different varieties of foes. Instead, they head to the local library and read up on the fortress, the history of the helmet, and accounts of adventurers who failed to retrieve it. This research narrows down the helmet’s location to the Northeast Tower, describes the frogmen who guard it, and even gives hints to the traps and puzzles they’ll encounter along the way.
The player finally heads in, battling their way to the top of the tower by the skin of their teeth, and manages to find the helmet of their dreams. In return, they’re given an entirely unique ability to command amphibious creatures.
All of this works together to build the gear’s legend and character, and thus build the player’s attachment to each individual piece. The player should feel like they’ve gained something unique, valuable, and important to the world’s history… something they’ll want to keep for all time as a trophy, instead of just another random trading card to be discarded whenever something better comes along.
With a finite selection of such weapons, it’s also possible to program NPCs to react appropriately. They could remark on legendary weapons, or take threats more seriously at the sight of them. Thieves might selectively try to lift particularly valuable pieces.
This treasure hunting concept extends beyond gear, though, and stands at the center of Artifact’s entire quest methodology. The player earns their fortune and makes their name by researching and hunting down rare and valuable treasures hidden throughout the land. The most valuable treasures are deep inside ancient fortresses that pose greater challenges, and more prolonged adventures.
Since the treasure hunt and its mechanics are so central to the adventure, the game necessarily lacks floating objective markers. Players have to rely on the clues they’ve found and their own ability to navigate.
Artifact also steps away from traditional RPG inventory tropes. Beyond essential gear, players only have space to carry 2-3 small items. This allows them to take the treasure they’re after, but prevents them from trucking around a pile of worthless weapons and trinkets.
What are these treasures, though, and how do they work?
Health, Combat, & Complexity
Artifact is intended entirely as a single-player game, but much of the design owes its philosophy to competitive multiplayer gaming. That’s because of its focus on player skill — precisely what competitive gaming aims to test.
To my mind, the key ingredient to those games is meaningful and actionable complexity. That’s to say, they give players a variety of useful and distinct abilities which can be countered in multiple ways.
For some games (such as the current wave of MOBAs), this is taken to an extreme. Player action and reaction begins with choosing heroes, and continues throughout the match not only in player movements and tactics, but also in their choices of abilities and gear. Real-time strategy (RTS) games display a similar level of complexity in their build trees and troop composition, and the two genres have come to dominate the competitive gaming scene.
While not as difficult, Artifact nevertheless adopts the same principles, under the belief that these qualities make action-gaming fun.
Let’s start with the way damage is modeled and calculated.
Characters can deal and receive two types of damage: hits and wounds.
A hit is a blunt impact. They beat a character up, and can knock them out (but not kill them). All human characters can take 8 hits before falling unconscious, and are only able to regenerate them outside of combat.
A wound represents serious harm, either a gash or some internal damage. A human character can sustain 5 wounds, but they work a little differently than hits: each wound removes a corresponding hit, and will add an additional wound every three minutes unless treated. Wounds can be healed through magic, potions, or by seeking treatment in town.
That ratio, 8 hits and 5 wounds, describes all human characters in the world, while creatures range from just 1 hit and 1 wound, all the way up to 16 hits and 10 wounds (double the player’s).
These health markers aren’t just countdowns to the player’s downfall, though; the health level interacts with gameplay in meaningful ways. As a player runs out of hits, their movements become more labored and their attacks become more desperate. When they have only a single hit remaining, their speed is noticeably reduced but their damage is doubled. This also makes the player more terrifying to enemies.
How does the game decide whether something is a hit or a wound? By comparing the weapon and armor. It’s not simple (neither is the traditional system), but it is fairly intuitive (unlike the traditional system).
Each armor offers partial or full defense against specific types of attacks. Partial defense means that an attack can only deal hits, while full defense means there’s no damage.
For instance, an unarmored person has partial resistance to punches (receiving hit damage), but none to blades (receiving wounds). Chain mail is partially resistant to blades, but isn’t resistant to warhammers at all. Plate is partially resistant to warhammers & blades (and fully resistant to fists)… but it offers no defense against lightning spells… and some musical spells can break it.
That brings us to armor breaking. Every armor type can be broken, lowering its resistence by one level, and thus opening the wearer to attack. In other words, once an armor is broken, full protection becomes partial (hits), and partial becomes none (wounds).
Imagine that a player specializing in fire-magic runs into an enemy in dragonskin armor, which offers full resistance against their primary abilities. The player could use explosive attacks to break the armor first, dropping the resistance down to partial, and opening their enemy to attack.
Every distinct kind of armor, weapon, spell, and offensive song slots into this system, giving every piece of gear its own purpose. Mechanically, it’s like an overgrown game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock.
For simplicity, all armors and weapons of a type have the same damage properties (except for legendary pieces). That’s to say that all leather armor is the same, as is chain mail and plate, at least for damage calculation purposes. Similarly, all swords are swords, knives are knives, and axes are axes. This removes any need for players to sort through junk, because there are no minor statistical differences to compare.
Which isn’t to say there are no variations within gear types, or that those differences are only cosmetic. Instead, the different styles have impact directly on player skills. Some styles of sword, for instance, may increase the range or speed of slashing attacks, but are more dangerous when fumbled (thus making them poor choices for training). One style of leather glove could improve acrobatic techniques (climbing, wall-jumps, etc.) while making weapon techniques more difficult.
To maintain balance, more exotic and powerful pieces of gear suffer from more unique and easily exploited weaknesses. An armor made from the bones of a titan may prevent wounds from a wide variety of attacks, but it also prevents the wearer from using magic, and is broken easily by healing spells. A sword that produces a large shockwave also slows attack speed, and can’t be used for blocking or parrying. A flaming axe could make a horrible hiss that angers nearby enemies (and even otherwise friendly animals).
Artifact’s gear concept isn’t starkly different from traditional RPGs. Lords of Steal offers gear that’s both specialized and stat boosted, while Artifact focuses solely on the specialization — the interesting effects. Because of that, it can focus on making the interactions between effects more complex and interesting.
Mechanically, this system adds support to the treasure hunting core of the game. Players discover what sort of enemies they’ll be up against through research, then seek out appropriate gear in preparation, each piece its own treasure to be hunted. Players hunt treasure to help them hunt better treasure.
It also ties into the game world thematically, giving weapons and armor types essential qualities that an NPC might explain without sounding incredibly alien (“Hail, hero! Wouldst thou care to purchase this fine sword? It bears a curse of +7 poison!”). Meanwhile, enchanted items exist in limited quantities with backstories that explain their existence.
Each piece of gear is memorable, and offers the player some meaningful choice. The game is designed in such a way that these weapons are the goals players set for themselves. Whether it’s the Shadow Boots of Vandrenar, the Sword of Righteous Light, Toilvek’s Mystical Grimoire, or Zulbellius’ Blessed Violin… the player learns about them through the game world, and sets off to hunt them down.
And if they’re too slow, sometimes other adventurers will get there first.
Little Red Bottles
This may surprise you, but Artifact allows the player to carry 2-3 health potions. That’s right… in an emergency, they can just pop the cork and drink themselves to health.
I’m such a hypocrite.
But, I have an excuse! Artifact treats health potions very strangely.
First, the action doesn’t happen invisibly off-screen. The character takes out a bottle, pops the cork and drinks it. This is difficult in the middle of combat, so they’ll need to disengage and hopefully find a second or two of safety.
Second, health potions are a real phenomena in Artifact’s world. Characters talk about them, and NPCs (allied and enemy alike) make use of them. When nearly beaten, they’ll try to get some space and knock back a red one.
Finally, health potions have a large drawback: they’re addictive. If the player habitually relies on liquid life, their character becomes dependent on it, requiring a steady supply just to remain healthy. They become potion junkies.
There’s no need for mana potions in Artifact because there’s no mana.
The Reaper Takes a Holiday
While Artifact is frequently a game about killing, it’s not a game about dying. If a player is knocked out (they’ve taken 8 hits), another adventurer will drag them to a safe spot earlier in the area, and they’ll lose a small amount of gold.
If a player loses all five wounds, they’ll be struck down. This also triggers a rescue by another adventurer, but the player is returned all the way to town this time. They lose more gold than when knocked out, and their conditions are all reset to average.
If the player has companions, they’re dragged to safety for free.
Put a Spell on You
Artifact offers the modern magic user a wide variety of spells. With their spellbook armed, players can access any school of magic they know with a simple button-combo. From fire to frost, void spells that warp space itself, and decay spells that damage armor and make enemies forget their own abilities… the possibilities are wide open.
The game offers one spell that’s used in nearly every RPG–healing–but it comes with a twist here. Players can find and learn the spell just like any other, but Artifact’s version only works on others, and it consumes the caster’s own health as it works (1 hit for every 2 hits healed; 1 wound for each wound healed). Restoring health in Artifact is never free.
If enemies should get too close, spell-casting players can switch to the melee weapon of their choice, although there’s one weapon designed specifically with magic-users in mind — the staff. Players can imbue their staff with any magical energy (at least, if they know the skill to do so), and the resulting attacks are enhanced by a high focus condition. The extra abilities give the weapon more utility, and mostly serve to help the player retreat (barriers, shockwaves, walls of fire, etc.).
Now, we already covered the basic mechanics of how spells are cast, but that only tells half the story. The other half is about the unseen.
In the world of Artifact, there are always mystical energies crackling nearby. They’re invisible to the naked eye, but are nevertheless real and powerful phenomena which the player taps into to use magic.
When the player uses the wizard-sight skill, their vision changes temporarily, making physical objects dimmer and monochrome but revealing ribbons of energy roving about the area. These interconnected filaments are called ley lines.
Ley lines throb with a steady rhythm which the player simultaneously hears. When casting a spell, they must match this rhythm as they select the needed symbols. Failure to match closely enough results in a fumbled spell.
The player’s distance to a ley line determines which spells they can cast, based in part on their current level: an apprentice needs to be near a ley line to cast any of their spells; a journeyman needs to be close for journeyman spells, but can be further when casting apprentice spells; and a master needs to be near the ley line for master-level spells, further for journeyman, and can cast apprentice spells anywhere.
To illustrate, imagine a wizardly player marching through the wide arcade of the Midnight Fortress. They catch sight of an approaching gargoyle racing forward on all fours, and decide they’d like to use their master-level wind spell. Activating wizard-sight, they see the nearest ley line is currently on the opposite side of the arcade, so the player dashes across the way and begins to prepare the spell.
With a key press, they bring up the wind arcana (a floating design with multiple symbols inside of it), then click-and-drag through five symbols to the beat of the ley line… thump thump thump. When they cross the last one, the arcana disappear, the player aims at the (now quite near) gargoyle, and releases the mouse-button.
A gust of wind arises from empty space and slams the gargoyle into the wall, shattering it into a thousand pieces.
That’s how magic is designed to play in Artifact. Well… most of it.
Music is basically another form of magic. As mentioned earlier, it’s performed much the same way as in music games, but here it has tangible effects on the battlefield, from healing to slowing, to breaking armor. Most of these effects decay quickly, so the player will need to keep playing to sustain them.
A player who focuses on music alone will want to attract companions, whose abilities they can boost in combat. This allows companions (who are usually much less competent than players) to fight at a competitive level and protect the musician throughout their adventure.
Finally, there’s one hybrid school of music/magic called summoning, which uses the music interface but also relies on ley lines. Players are chanting out into chaos and dragging creatures into our world with the power of their song, requiring both skill-sets to succeed.
Have It Your Way
I absolutely love one thing about (most) RPGs: they give you multiple ways to play their game. You can be a wizard, a warrior, a thief… sub-classes as diverse as witches, shamans, clerics, barbarians, assassins, burglars… hell, some games offer dozens of player classes, each with their own branching tree of skills and abilities. As a player, you’re asked to decide how you want to play at every single step.
This is a core feature I wanted to port into an action game, and that’s why Artifact is essentially four separate action games welded together. Players can treat it like a platformer, slickly bypassing enemies by using dangerous routes; or they can fight head-on, testing their mettle against hordes of foes; or they can hang back and sling sparking and burning energy around; or they can scamper away, playing music to alter the ebb and flow of the fight.
Best of all, they can mix and match whatever they want from the above, all by hunting down whichever skills seem fun and interesting.
During play, they can switch between these different modes by simply changing what’s in their character’s hand. Equip a musical instrument to start playing songs, or a wand to fling fireballs. Or put everything away to start climbing and tricking on the environment.
By default, the player can carry 3 equippable items (instruments, wands, weapons), in addition to being bare-handed. That means the player could have access to as many as 4 separate modes of play at any one time. Of course, they could also choose to specialize, carrying multiple weapons instead. It’s all up to them.
As I’ve hinted at several times, the player runs across other adventurers who will offer their assistance.
I happen to think the ideal intelligence for these companions is endearingly dumb. They’re each a specialist in one art, with skills comparable to the player’s, but behavior that’s clumsy and predictable. The viking always charges into the fray, scattering groups of enemies with a great battle-axe, while the earth mage carefully hides behind the player, showering the group with healing.
It’s best to think of the companions like power-ups in a scrolling shooter. They’re simple and consistent helpers who hover around you, doing their one job.
They can become exceptional, though, if the player takes a support role. The player can use music to invigorate their companions, alternating with songs that lull or confuse the opposition, and occasionally pausing to heal or magically mend someone’s armor.
With a small number of available companions (5-10) who obey simplified behavior, there’s also an opportunity to add more character to their performances. The animations for their chosen skills are customized to match their personality, and they also react dramatically in combat — shouting angrily, laughing with confidence, or crying out in horror.
These NPCs don’t work for free, though. Each one has an agreed upon rate that’s paid out whenever the player turns a profit (e.g., 10%, 15%).
There’s another sort of companion the player can attract, but this one never fights. The player can strike a deal with a travelling merchant who will then follow along, automatically collecting all the junk weapons and giving the player half the profits.
All heavy lifting is provided by the merchant’s servant, a stoic creature who carries a giant sack of loot around like an ant. That creature has a bit of extra storage capacity, and will carry 3 more equippable items for the player.
Both the merchant and his servant remain in known safe-areas while the player blazes a path.
Enemies, Opponents, & Innocents
The world would be a pretty dead place without NPCs. In Artifact, the player runs into enemies that try to kill them or drive them off, opponents who challenge them, and innocents who interact in less combative ways.
Let’s start with the innocents. Villages are filled with people wandering about, who are primarily featureless props (something like the crowds in Assassin’s Creed). Among these throngs of blank NPCs, the player finds interactive characters primarily in markets, libraries, royal estates, and guild halls.
Once the player’s reputation has risen, some NPCs will also seek them out to sell information or make requests (like retrieving their lost family heirloom). As part of the encounter system, these actors are randomly generated, crawling out of the woodwork to approach the player, and promptly disappearing once the job is done.
All of these interactive NPCs (or actors) are set apart by distinguishing design features. They dress more brightly, act more obviously, and generally draw attention to themselves. The generated characters will call out to the player, while merchants loudly shout across a crowded market to attract business.
During the course of the player’s adventure, they will also run into opponents (usually 3-4 active in the game world). These are competing treasure hunters, procedurally generated by the game, who function in the world just like the player does — they take interest in treasures, chase the paper trail, and venture into fortresses to retrieve what they’re after.
As the game progresses, these characters also advance the same way the player does, gaining skills and gear at roughly the same rate. Their AI simultaneously becomes more sophisticated, allowing them to make better decisions faster.
Most have a contentious (and melodramatic) relationship with the player, challenging them to duels, races, musical competitions, or just to retrieve a specific treasure first. Players can refuse their challenges, but it damages their reputation.
It’s these opponents that are the main dramatic element in Artifact, forming the game’s narrative backbone. In all the player’s many adventures, it’s the encounters with opponents that form a continuing thread, providing dramatic peaks and valleys.
In fights, players can choose to either knock their opponents unconscious or kill them, but killing does massive harm to their reputation. A player who kills repeatedly will find it nearly impossible to recruit followers or interact with anyone beside vendors.
Finally, there are enemies. Enemies are animals, creatures, and a few crazed humans, all of whom the player can kill without repercussions. Some will fight to the death, but most are protective and simply trying to drive the player off. They display a variety of behaviors, from pack-hunting, to sneaking, to all-out assault. The most aggressive and unyielding are those located inside the fortresses.
Books, Books, Books
One of the most peculiar facets of Artifact’s design is the extensive library of in-game reading material, not just as decoration for the game world, but as a core gameplay mechanic. Players read books to learn about the treasures scattered across the world, and about the levels and monsters they’ll face along the way. They can even read books to gain skills.
This design decision might seem off-putting at first. Why force players to read? Few players boot up a video game to read ham-fisted books.
Artifact doesn’t force anyone to read, but it gives players the opportunity, and rewards them for it. And it’s the specific content of the books that makes them special…
Artifact’s books are packed with world building and useful information. Essentially, the game includes everything usually found in a game’s wiki–hints, tips, walkthroughs, and backstory–all there, just waiting for players to dig it up.
At the same time, this reading is prevented from grinding gameplay to a halt in two ways. The first is by offering all collected books in the mobile app. A player can read in-game books anywhere they like, and the app will record their reading time, modify their character’s conditioning, and unlock any new skills.
The other way is by allowing the player to read while traveling…
Press X to Slow Travel
Artifact is an open-world game, presenting the player with a small region filled with towns, crypts, caves, and the occasional fortress, which they’re free to explore at their own speed.
Nothing unusual about that. Open-world design has become especially popular in recent years, and now accounts for a sizable chunk of the market. Most such games offer some ability to move instantly (fast travel) between previously visited locations. Artifact doesn’t.
That sounds awfully unfriendly, doesn’t it? Fast travel is one of those mechanics, like saving games and multiple lives, that exists purely for the player’s sake. It’s there to remove an annoyance… in the case of open world games, the brutal boredom that accompanies running back through the same territory repeatedly.
Artifact accounts for this problem in another way — by making traveling entertaining.
A player can choose to either march along a road (which their character does on autopilot), or trot through the wilderness (which must be manually controlled).
While marching, the player can read books, practice spells, play music, or just sight-see if they like. Any encounter automatically cancels the march, and puts the player back in full control.
The wilderness holds attraction mainly for acrobats and fighters. For acrobats, it offers ravines, rocks, trees, and outcroppings, which the player can run up, jump over, slide down, and otherwise have fun practicing on. For fighters… we need to talk about the encounter system first.
During the player’s travels, the world automatically generates a series of encounters. If a quest is like an entire episode, these are more like scenes. The player may encounter a broken down wagon under attack by wolves, or a house on fire. It could be as simple as a run-in with an angry bear, as extravagant as a sorcerer summoning a lesser demon into the world, or even something plot relevant, like a run-in with a competing treasure hunter.
The goal is to not just break up the monotony, but also give the player something memorable. Ideally, they should have 1-2 encounters on each long journey, which would also allow them to test the skills they’ve been practicing.
Encounters along the road are generally less dangerous and more interactive than those in the wilderness. For instance, a musician might be able to ward off the wolves with a sad song, or a magician could put out the fire with a wind spell.
The forest is meanwhile dark and full of dangers, like that demon that demands to be slain, or a dark knight terrorizing peasants. The encounters here tend to be pure fights, which cater to the fighter’s interests.
…and the acrobat can simply run, jump, and flip past their troubles.
It’s simple, intuitive, and allows the player to get precisely what they want from the game. Best of all, it’s controlled entirely by their behavior. The game reacts to the way it’s being played, and tailors the experience accordingly.
There’s one part of the game we haven’t really talked about, yet. It’s the big, floppy-eared elephant sitting in the corner of the room.
At the heart of this massively complex and thoroughly over-engineered game is a deep, rich, and powerful cinematic experience, filled with drama and pathos the likes of which…
No, wait… Actually, it’s not. None of that.
In Artifact, players explore, hunt for treasure, take on generated quests, and compete with other hunters. The only non-interactive cinematic is the brief intro — a bird’s eye fly-through of the game world, that finally swoops down and focuses on the player as they arrive by boat.
It’s entirely open ended. The only story is the player’s adventures, and the way they interact with the world.
One of the greatest challenges of the design is making sure those adventures and interactions are memorable. It’s in giving the player experiences they want to tell stories about, instead of stopping their experience to tell them a story.
I don’t harbor any illusions about Artifact ever being developed. It’s strange, untested, and has a lot of moving parts.
It’s a pipe-dream, but one I can’t help thinking about while I’m staring at my character screen, unable to decide between a 20% damage bonus and improved critical strikes. It comes back to me while I’m selling off five identical maces and more magical rings than a man could wear. It bubbles up whenever a health potion flashes on my quickbar, refilling my health globe with blood, and whenever a dead ogre drops a rare sword that it clearly wasn’t using.
The pipe-dream is always there, whispering in my ear and quietly proclaiming that games don’t have to work this way.
I love a lot of things about RPGs: their breadth and scope, the level of detail and world building they bring to gaming, and the sheer amount of choice they offer… but I hate RPGs.
Can we please try something else?