This is a list of factors that I personally think make for a good Role Playing Game. Note that this only applies to the Western RPGs. The reason I specify it to Western RPGs is because Japanese RPGs tend to be somewhat different and have other features that make them good. Now not all of these factors are necessary for an RPG to be great, but the more the better. So let’s begin…
- Fantasy becomes Reality – Creating an Immersive World
Perhaps not an essential feature for a good RPG, but it certainly is one that almost guarantees a person to love the game, even if the gameplay is somewhat repetitive. This is about the game engulfing the player into its world and making them feel like they are part of it. There is a difference between simply playing the game and actually living inside it, and a good immersive world is what’s needed for that transition from the former to the latter. This is perhaps the main reason as to why series like ‘Mass Effect’ and ‘The Elder Scrolls’ are so highly received by both critics and fans alike, and why so many people can play these games for hours non-stop.
There are several aspects which make the game’s world immersive. First of all, it has to be large and open. It has to overwhelm the player, but in a good way. Secondly, not only it has to be big, but also rich in detail and provide backstories on virtually everything there is in the game that matters. It has to have a lot of history and different cultures in it. And another important feature is to make memorable non-playable characters (NPCs). In nearly every RPG, a player will interact with lots of NPCs, and it sure makes the game’s world more immersive if these NPCs are well-developed and act like real beings with their own personal goals, desires, and fears, as well as styles of speech.
- I am what I am - Full Character Customization
There is another factor that is quite important to draw the player into the game’s setting, and that is to allow them to be who they want to be. Sometimes we don’t want to be just some random guy that the game assigns us to be, or what if we don’t feel like playing as an angsty teenager and want to be someone mature, or maybe we wish to play as a female for a change rather than a bulky dude. This is where full character customization plays wonders. You experience the game’s world not through a generic avatar, but through whoever it is you wish to experience it from, whether you’re creating a replica of yourself, or perhaps your dream warrior girl, or maybe even the weirdest looking character that your imagination can conjure up.
Many of the older RPGs don’t have this feature, and for them it’s forgiveable, since gaming technology was not as good as it’s now. However, nowadays there is no excuse to pass this feature up. If it’s not included in a game, it’s a step behind the competition. And I don’t only talk about changing the character’s gender and race, but detailed customization of the entire appearance. The more customization options, the better it is.
- The More the Merrier – Adding Variation
This is perhaps the most important point on this list. This has the tendency to make or break the game if taken to either extreme. In the end, no matter how interesting the game’s story is or how good the characters are, nobody wants to be killing the same enemies in exactly the same manner in the same-looking environments. Some other video game genres might get away with it, but not an RPG. A single player campaign in an FPS game for example might only last 5 or 10 hours, but in an RPG it will last on average of 30 to 40 hours, and so variation in gameplay is crucial.
Variation involves many aspects, all of which are important:
a) Variation in playstyles of different character classes
b) Variation in gameplay within the same class
c) Variation in the challenge
d) Variation in the environments
From above, points (a) and (b) refer to how the player actually interacts with the in-game challenges – new skills and abilities learned, new weapons and items acquired, and so on. Point (a) is about having multiple different ways to play through the game, whether someone prefers to be an up close fighter or a stealthy assassin or a mage, you name it. However, point (b) is also important, because even within the same class there should be enough variation so not to get the player bored after first few hours.
Variation in the challenge (point c) refers to the variation in enemies, bosses, traps, and all sorts of environmental hazards. It has to keep changing so to keep the player on their toes. It can get extremely boring if the challenge does not increase and does not force the player to try out another technique.
And finally, variation in the environments (point d) is mostly about the visual aesthetics. People like to see a variety of colours and different locations. Going through dungeons which look identical to one another can get very repetitive and boring, even if there is variation in the skills players can use and the enemies they meet. Of course there are many games out there which try to have a theme, for example the post-apocalyptic theme, or a horror theme, or a dystopian theme, etc, but even within each theme it is possible to create different locations, and a good developer will know how to get that done.
- I always have time for you - Good Side Quests
In a good, open-ended RPG, there are going to be plenty of side missions to do apart from the main story. This means that side quests will take up a substantial amount of your time when playing these games, and therefore this aspect needs to be executed properly as well. Unfortunately there is a limited number of possibilities as to what sort of side quests can be put into the game. Many of them involve very similar mechanics, whether it’s to go and fetch an item, or to rescue someone, or to kill a certain creature, etc.
There are ways, however, how repetition can be avoided. For example, each side quest could have a little backstory. These backstories are important not only for adding some variation between the quests with similar mechanics, but also for getting the player emotionally attached to the quest. You know – why should I care to go into the cave and get that sword for some character? What importance does that hold for them?
There is another important thing that needs to be considered, and unfortunately even good developers often overlook it. Oftentimes I notice that side quests are only fun the first time through. On the second or third playthrough I frequently feel like I can’t be bothered doing them again, because I still remember way too well what needs to be done and what I get for it. Because of that, the side quests must not be too linear. I think the player should be given choices of how to complete them and perhaps can even lead to entirely different outcomes (more on choices, see point number 6).
- What happens next? - Good Main Story
Every good game needs a direction of some kind, an ultimate goal to accomplish. Most times it takes a form of the main questline. You could be introduced to a huge, immersive world and have fantastic side quests, but there must be a central conflict somewhere at the heart of the game, something to drive it forward. Now, although many RPGs have a main story, some of the time the story ends up being quite overused or even insignificant and falls onto the background.
This can often be the case when the game is too open and has a lot to explore and a lot of side quests to do. In a way there is a payoff. If, on the other hand, the game concentrates on the main story too much, then it becomes a bit too linear and loses on the flexibility and exploration aspect. However, this is not always the case. It is well possible for a game to have an intriguing storyline and at the same time very fun side quests and places to explore. Games like ‘Deus Ex’ and ‘Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines’ are good examples of games which succeeded in finding that golden balance.
- Master of My Destiny – Choices and Consequences
The final point I’ll discuss is the idea of making choices in the game, choices which affect how the story progresses and which characters are no longer going to be part of it. A good role-playing game should make the player feel in control. It’s not enough to simply play the game from the beginning to the end, like a one-way road. In a good RPG, the player starts at the beginning, then follows a variety of paths which branch off from each other, and finally gets to one of several possible endings. Being able to make a variety of decisions assures that no two playthroughs will be the same. It keeps the experience fresh. It makes people interested to know what would happen if they made a different choice. Sometimes they even present very interesting moral dilemmas, forcing us to sacrifice one thing for another.
The important thing to note here is not only being presented with a variety of choices, but to be presented with choices which actually affect the future events. If a choice presents no difference to anything in the game, then it’s useless and shouldn’t even be in it at all.
I’ll mention ‘Deus Ex’ again, because that was one of the first, if not the first game that revolutionized the idea of making choices and then reaping the consequences later on.