What is gameplay?
This is a question that, in general, kind of gets unspoken, but the answer to it informs a lot of design. To me, especially with turn based RPGs: Gameplay = Choices.
If the player doesn’t have choices to make, how to approach battle, what skills to use, how to explore the maps, how to build their characters, then that isn’t gameplay. It is just having a story told to you.
But let’s be honest, no one TRIES to make an RPG that lacks those. Everyone TRIES to make a game with interesting choices. But what happens, very often, either through mistake or design, are choices are limited by their practicality in game, rather than there literally being no choices.
In the choices you present to your characters, work your best to make them viable. If you are giving a choice and it isn’t viable, either through combination with other choices, or on its own, then it probably wasn’t really a choice.
Think for a moment, if there is one skill that is much much better than all others, and doesn’t have a significant cost, why would anyone use anything else? And if they aren’t using anything else, where is the choice?
For an example of a professional series of games that suffers from a lack of choice in one aspect, let’s look at:
The Dragon Quest Series
First, let me say that I am a huge fan of the Dragon Quest series, and think Dragon Quest IX was probably the best game on the Nintendo DS. Unfortunately, the series has really been known to create nonchoices around one, very specific family of enemies.
Want to level up some? It is time to go Metal Hunting. In most Dragon Quest games, there is almost no other viable way to level quickly. So if you are going after XP, this is your option.
Get used to those chubby adorable faces.
And Dragon Quest IX, despite my love for the game, brought it to a head. With visible enemies you could dodge, it was easy to fight almost nothing but groups with metal slimes or their family. And if you were lucky enough to get the right extra dungeon maps, you could end up with an entire floor with nothing but King Metal Slimes.
Leveling in any other way makes no sense. It isn’t a choice.
But it is easy to see how stuff like this would happen. For instance, with Dragon Quest Metal Slimes, it was meant to be a “hey you hunted and found one, congrats for killing it.” But as it got easier to kill them with specialized skills, and easier to hunt for them, the reward was bigger than the work to do it.
Or with a skill you have to work really hard to get, you want it to be powerful. But if it completely overshadows everything and is the only thing useful, people will rush for that skill and ignore any other “powerful” skills you made.
Always be wary of anything that is powerful in your game, or gives a huge reward in materials or experience. If you aren’t careful, the players will only end up doing those things, and your game, even with tons of “variety” instead ends up with one or two real choices.
Can you think of an accidental non-choice you made in your games? Can you think of any professional games that build non-choice into them? Do you have opinions on non-choices? Join us in the comments below.