RPG timing

I’ve been watching my daughter play Dragon Age: Origin and drooling for my opportunity to play. (For a number of reasons, I don’t get to play until she’s either had at least one full play-through OR she says she’s done. Irrelevant for this article, however.) I got to thinking, however, about why the game seems to get boring at times.

Yes, there’s the problem of things being the same old same old at the macro level. Once you’ve figured out tactics, the rest of it’s just polishing those tactics — except for the occasional special (boss, puzzle, whatever).

Now, I know why the variable path rpgs are preferred to what are now called action games – that is, you’ve got a bunch of routes to the end and you can take any vs you have to hit each of the main elements in turn – have gained in popularity. It gives a better impression of being a role-playing game. More choices means, well, roles instead of ‘protagonist in a novel’.

The thing is, I got to musing and realized that even though you HAVE the choices, they don’t matter. Seriously: you have the “main” quests/missions and you’ve got the side quests. You have to hit all the main quests, and if you /can/ skip them you come to the end missing some critical info or abilities which you might be able to work around. All the side quests are optional but other than time there’s no reason NOT to do them — they almost always give you a gain, and rarely are those with penalties significant.

The reason that’s a “so what” element is that every game I’ve been able to recall offhand has a “pressure” goal for the climax. You know it’s coming, and more often than not it’s at least theoretically it’s better sooner than later. At least, that’s the story. In reality, regardless how many quests you complete or side quests you pursued, you get to the climax Just In Time — and it’s pretty much always the same climax. Yes, even in KotOR, you had to Board the Ship, Meet your Love (whether you save or kill her), and defeat The Big Villain — and regardless of how long you took you get to that scenario Just In Time.

Players know this. It’s Built In. There may be stages with timers and such but for RPGs the exploration Just Doesn’t Matter.

I would like to suggest a small innovation. Make the time matter. No, I don’t mean a count-down clock after which you are Too Late, but… ok, let’s see if I can vary DA:O without spoiling anything that isn’t common knowledge already.

When you get to the final battle, you have a bunch of armies thanks to the main quests, and you have the Big Boss, a couple of Secondary Bosses, and a range of trash and tough fights getting to each of them. You have the same amount of bosses and pretty much the same trash and fights regardless of whether you stopped to kill dragons or saved children or rejoined lovers or anything else or not. I don’t know (and wouldn’t say if I did), but I can guess that IF you can skip one of the main quests and so not have that army show up, you STILL have the same number of bosses and mobs.

Now this is adjusted behind the scenes in that enemies are tweaked to your level. Oh, there’s a bit more than that (fascinating stuff, really, involving area limits and floors and ceilings for various mobs) but that’s basically it. Because of the floor you need a certain level of skill and talent to even think of taking the Final Boss, but even so it’s all BEHIND THE SCENES.

I propose adding something and putting it right out front. Let’s take DA:O. You allegedly are arriving to attack a Darkspawn Army that has attacked and taken part of The City – just not all of it (yet). What if… What if while you are dithering about getting levels and toys and such, the Darkspawn is also growing? What if every side-quest completed added more spawn, with a certain quantity of increase bringing not only a boss but a larger chunk of the city taken? What if you don’t HAVE to take every main quest, and each one you skip balances the fact you don’t get That Special info/ability/tool with the fact the Darkspawn isn’t as fully invested in the city? Yes, I’m proposing that some players would have the ability to ride straight from the Origin to the Final Battle (maybe with one or two mandatory scene-setters) to see if their level 3 kiddie can take a level 16 (or 18 or whatever it’s “floor” is set to be) ArchDemon after punching through all the level 6 (or again “floor”) members of the minimal force enemy “army”.

It would, I suspect, be easy to do poorly – but that’s typical. There are games with climaxes where time might be the more significant element. There are tricks to apply, such as “the final countdown clock doesn’t start till the bad guy knows you exist and are aiming to defeat him.” Some cases of ‘final battle’ (KotOR) are just flat going to be unavoidable.

But I believe the additional pressure – minor though it might be – will enhance replay. Sure, you can develop your character to UUUber, but it might be easier and better if you bite the bullet a little earlier.

A variation is to have side quests tick against the relative main quest. Here, sometimes, time may matter. Or it’s just how many side quests you do. You can increase this, with GREAT difficulty, by having side quests matter to the main quest. For example…

You do not rescue a child from a demonic possession. Therefor the father doesn’t give you the route that lets you surprise the main quest boss and bypass a bunch of traps. Same child, this time you say ‘screw it’ and let the demon fully possess the child in exchange for an amulet that boosts your spellpower. You get to the final battle only to discover that demon (in the child) is part of the enemy’s retinue. You destroy the demon, rescuing the child from its possession. The demonic boss is alerted due to the magical ties. Or you can just skip the possession quest entirely, in which case you walk up the main approach, through the traps, and face a boss that realized you were there shortly before you opened the door but not enough to PREPARE for you — and without some nasty members of the retinue, too.

Let the side quests – many of them if not most of them – have an impact beyond xp and loot. Let them matter even if they’re NOT chosen.

Let the timing matter, and I think the RPGs will move yet another level up in popularity and involvement. Not to mention the fact it increases replay value — and that in turn hits the bottom line. I think it’s a good deal.


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