J.E. Sawyer's five hard lessons on RPG design

Discussion in 'NMA News and Information' started by WorstUsernameEver, Aug 17, 2011.

  1. WorstUsernameEver

    WorstUsernameEver But best title ever!

    May 28, 2010
    During a talk at GDC Europe, J.E. Sawyer - lead designer on Van Buren and project director and lead designer on Fallout: New Vegas - discussed and exposed five hard lessons on RPG design he's learned over the years. It's a fairly interesting, if debatable, read, so here's a snippet:<blockquote>3.) Strategic failures feel really bad -- In an extreme example, he mentioned that The Bard's Tale, a 1980s classic, required you to have a bard in your party to progress past a certain point -- something that was not telegraphed by anything but the game's title.

    More relevantly, Icewind Dale and Temple of Elemental Evil required the player to create entire parties at the adventure's outset. "The games were tuned for D&D veterans. There are tons of ways you can make strategic errors. There are tons of ways you can make bad parties. What happens is 20 to 30 hours into the game, you can't go any further."

    "Yes, the player made the error but we placed a high demand on them," Sawyer said.

    In Fallout 1 and 3, specializing in "big guns" was not that useful, as there were few such weapons and they didn't show up early in the game -- neither of which the player could know at the point of character creation. "In Fallout New Vegas, we got rid of the big guns skill and pushed those guns into other gun categories."

    "We kept the idea, we wanted the experience, but we didn't want them to have to deal with the weird system," he said.

    "I don't see a compelling reason to not" let players re-spec characters that aren't suited to the gameplay design in an RPG, he also added.</blockquote>
  2. ZeusComplex

    ZeusComplex Still Mildly Glowing

    Feb 12, 2010
    I have somewhat opposite opinions on this matter. While yes, it is annoying when your try a repetitive action only to fail a high percentage of the time (given if your skill in said action is low), the entire purpose of skill increasing in an RPG is to give you and your character the sense of improvement and progression. It begins to feel extremely artificial and less natural when it depends more on player skill instead of character skill. I hated the way lockpicking and science worked in FO3 and NV simply because of how straight forward it is. Only four times in your improvment of these skills does it really impact your usage. Most of the time however, I felt like I was just wasting points. I felt no progression and the entire affair felt robotic.

    Same with combat, I'll admit a huge amount of random accuracy is a hindrance but it still needs to exist in a limited form. Why? Well, the same points above apply here. Skill increase in newer RPG's equals more damage, but this completely feels fake and takes me out of the whole experience. I believe a balance should be found between the two. Deus Ex did a great job with player skill vs character skill in combat. Yes, you could be a one shot badass at end game, but with a bit of smarts and extra effort you could do the same actions with a lower skill rating. This was not the case in FO3 where I could pick up a Rocket Launcher and use it just as well. Percentages in FO3 where all messed up. I could use a gun with a 23% hit chance in VATS and still hit 50% if not 75% of the time. I could easily finish a game without any high combat skills nor extra effort of thought and pre combat preparations.
  3. mobucks

    mobucks jetski Orderite

    May 22, 2010
    lesson # 6:

    Stop making fps rpgs.

    I like them don't get me wrong, but I think its time.
  4. Zumbs

    Zumbs Lurking Swamp Thing

    Oct 11, 2008
    Interesting article. In may ways, I can't help to agree with Sawyer. But there is a but coming ...

    And yet they did not get rid of the Energy Weapons skill while they were at it. It would have made a lot more sense and removed the need to nerf energy weapons to the point where 1900s weapons can compete with the pinnacle of 2070s technology. Hopefully we will see that in Fallout 4.

    I agree. It seems Sawyer forgot his 2nd rule What you can perceive is the most important thing. Spending points to go from 50 to 74 in Lockpicking has no effect what so ever. Yes, that is almost all skill points for two levels. And it highlights the problems of mini games.

    If they rely too much on player skill (like in Oblivion), the corresponding skill is without value. If are trivially easy, relying on character skill to act as a door stop (like in FO3/NV), the minigames themselves loose relevance. Which is why I prefer the "stab the door and let character skill decide if I succeed" method of FO1/2.

    He does have a point on the notion of rolls, though. Many players will reload and try again if they fail, which suggests a broken mechanic. I actually like the static skill requirement in FONV. If the locks/terminal difficulty had progressed in steps of 5 (instead of 25), and a lockpicking/hacking attempt were an activate, play some animation, followed by a message success or failure, it would have been a lot more enjoyable to me. Particularly if it included the option of someone walking in on you while you were picking the door 8-)

    I have had the exact same experience. Some of it is likely due to the enemy moving towards you, effectively increasing your chance to hit, but it does suggest that the odds are computed by other functions than actually used in the game ...
  5. LinkPain

    LinkPain Mildly Dipped

    Jan 18, 2011
    More relevantly, Icewind Dale and Temple of Elemental Evil required the player to create entire parties at the adventure's outset. "The games were tuned for D&D veterans. There are tons of ways you can make strategic errors. There are tons of ways you can make bad parties. What happens is 20 to 30 hours into the game, you can't go any further."

    I eyed out this one. Why?
    What he said is a sorrowful truth, but then the companies (looking at today RPG experiences) went to the other extremes. Create whatever you like, the game is too easy and you will win anyway. That's dumbing down, trying to make player like the game more because he's a "god" in it.
    IW at least thought people to think broadly about their gameplay and not rush it mindlessly, but that lesson was painful.
    Rarely a medium is found.
  6. Threepwood

    Threepwood Look, Ma! Two Heads!

    Nov 4, 2010
    Yep. Party selection in say, Mass Effect 1 and 2, aswell as Dragon Age II is pointless, take whoever and you'll gg no re anything in your path.
  7. Beelzebud

    Beelzebud A Smooth-Skin

    Mar 6, 2008
    I think on my very first play session of Fallout I made an energy weapons character. I was a bit turned off by the fact that there were no weapons for me to use, so I re-rolled as a small guns character.
  8. Gizmojunk

    Gizmojunk Antediluvian as Feck

    Nov 26, 2007
    I would pre-calculate 256 rolls when the game commenced (and again as needed).

    A reload (for the sake of exploiting it) would always look to the next value and it would be the same.

    Even better, the game could cache not just the 256 list, but the last skill used, in RAM (and have it survive a reload). Players would have to close and rerun the game to exploit that...

    Even then you could design it to skip back one value on the list for a random number of seconds after a reload. So if the pickpocket tried and failed, reloaded, and tried again ~they would fail again, unless they waited for it to pull the next random value (after the random ~say 20 to 40 second delay).
  9. .Pixote.

    .Pixote. Antediluvian as Feck

    Sep 14, 2009
    Why can't people make mistakes in games, what's wrong with starting the game afresh - if that game is truly enjoyable then it's not an issue. Working your way around the games flaws is apart of gaming. Who wants a perfect game anyway. :shrug:
  10. Lexx

    Lexx Testament to the ghoul lifespan
    Moderator Modder

    Apr 24, 2005
    If I want to open a locked door or such and fail, I reload and try again and again and again, until I realize that I probably can't do it.

    It's just natural. If there is a box or a locked room and I want to have access to it, I will reload in a system that uses random chance. Especially in games like Fo1 / 2, where you have a chance to open a lock even with minimum skill, thanks to the skill rolls. Only because I know that I *could* open it by chance.

    Therefore, I am a supporter of non-skill roll skill checks in most cases. Most people would reload in such a situation, but not with more or less fixed skill values-- in this case it wouldn't change anything.
  11. Ilosar

    Ilosar Vault Fossil

    Apr 20, 2010
    Some people will. Others will get frustrated; I picked First Aid, Outdoorsman (it was a post-apocalyptic game, no?) and Big Guns as my sole combat skill for my first run through FO1, as well as the Skilled and Fast Metabolism traits; you can imagine how fun it was to play an utterly gimped character that chould get almost nothing done. Made me put down the game for a while.

    That said, making all builds correct is also bad. Recent Bioware games are guilty for sure. OK, based on what enemies you face, some builds/companions are better than others (tech people against robots in ME1 and 2, strong melee fighters against squishy Darkspawn and Mages in general melting faces in Origins) but very few are explicitly *bad* (well, you could screw up a Rogue by investing too much in Willpower and Strength and talents like Ranger, but there was less risk).

    New Vegas strikes a balance imo, until late levels where you own faces anyway. If you don't build your character correctly or try to be a jack of all trades, you will fail many skill checks. Sure, you will progress into the game, but you won't get every reward or see everything. It seems like a good solution to me. And there are always enemies that will fuck up some builds (my melee character had a hard time in Zion, what with all those green Geckos and giant Cazadores, Legion assassins taking me by surprise made my fragile sniper character suffer).
  12. LinkPain

    LinkPain Mildly Dipped

    Jan 18, 2011
    I like it when I can't see everything in the game, which is why I replayed FNV many times more than most games. It doesn't force you, it's just the way the game world appeals to the player and his choices (and you don't get retarded messages for picking the "wrong one"...).

    But Fallout 1 and 2 had everything in them, story and gameplay wise they are perfect RPGs. You can also taste that perfection in FNV when you don't have to fire a single bullet and just talk through the whole game and lead an army. Who would have thought or bothered for that? Cannibal perk too, for quest related problems.
    And they rank other games as AA titles for choices...
  13. Crni Vuk

    Crni Vuk M4A3 Oldfag oTO Orderite

    Nov 25, 2008
    though I really get the feeling it all started with people playing RPGs for the wrong reason and game developers (like some very famous one working for Bethesda ... ) thinking a RPG can actually work as well without being an RPG in the first place. It just needs levels. And stuff to kill from a horseback.

    I don't see why people complain about the Pen & Paper roots of some RPGs. I mean do this people complain that a bicycle isn't working exactly like rollerblades ? Maybe people play some games because they offer a different experience. Both swimming and running will shape your body if you do it. But they are not offering the same experience. Arguing with someone who loves running that Swimming is the "better" Sport and he should now practise that because it does not hurt your joints as much like swimming is just as silly.
  14. Gizmojunk

    Gizmojunk Antediluvian as Feck

    Nov 26, 2007
    I am a supporter of weighted chance over any other method I've seen in RPGs. It reflects the character's skill, mortal fallibility, and general good or bad luck. The better the PC is at picking locks, the more likely they'll have no trouble with a trivial application of their skill; and they'll have a decent chance at a more difficult one (a lock, in this case) due to their understanding.

    * Or they could just get lucky and open it; Or could snap a pick off in the lock and jam it permanently. Now... I have done both as a kid, and when I was six years old I reached up over my head, and 'blindly' twisted the nob on the combination lock for our pool supply closet ... and I opened it ~and it was a fluke, and I never got it open ever again, but it happened even though I was not skilled enough to make it happen at will.

    I've done the same with repair... we all have; Is there anyone here who hasn't hit something and it started working again? (for a while). 8-)

    The fact that its "arbitrarily" possible does not mean that it should happen when you want it to, and does mean that when it does happen its really cool. Reloading to redo the PC's life (until it happens the right way :P), is a poor approach to RPGs IMO.
  15. Lexx

    Lexx Testament to the ghoul lifespan
    Moderator Modder

    Apr 24, 2005
    Well, but the point is, that if it is possible to open a lock by luck, you can do save-scumming and most people will do this. Just because they can.
  16. Surf Solar

    Surf Solar So Old I'm Losing Radiation Signs

    Aug 20, 2009
    But why is this a problem? If someone wants to savescum, let them. If someone wants to cheat through a game, let them. If someone wants to ruin fun in his gameplay, let em. No one is forced to do it.

    Not saying that I'm a fan of the luck based locks, or aforementionend skillchecks, but if you really want to eliminate this save scumming, then follow Sawyers suggestions, or make it so that there are consequences for doing a check you don't immediately see right after the check. It is much more likely that a player will reload after he made check XY and the immediate response is not to his liking, than the actual response will appear 20-30 minutes later in game.
  17. OakTable

    OakTable Vault Senior Citizen

    Nov 26, 2009
    I figure one could just add more thresholds to cross in order to offset the downsides of said system (Lockpicking and Science skillpoints that are in between 25 to 50, for example, are useless).
  18. Lexx

    Lexx Testament to the ghoul lifespan
    Moderator Modder

    Apr 24, 2005
    As good as everyone does if they can. But even if not, it doesn't add anything to the game, it's just tedious and annoying. You can get the same (fun) result with fixed values and players do not have to reload all the time.

    Only in MMOs, real skill rolls are working, because the player can't reload and has to live with what happens.
  19. Threepwood

    Threepwood Look, Ma! Two Heads!

    Nov 4, 2010
    If you don't quicksave/quick load to pass vital checks then you're 1 in 10.

    The same can be said for people who use say, the Monkey Island hint system.
  20. Morbus

    Morbus Sonny, I Watched the Vault Bein' Built!

    Aug 16, 2006