Pitfalls of RPG Design: The Customization Curve

in Design

Lately, I’ve been replaying a lot of my favorite RPGs, and a single thing popped out at me over time.

Once you’ve played the game once, the mechanics are usually super simple at the beginning and super boring.

Hey look, I have one character, with one skill that isn’t attack. Maybe a heal. The first boss is just a cycle of attack, attack, attack, heal, attack, attack, attack, heal. Character customization isn’t completely unlocked yet. Maybe the ability to change classes isn’t unlocked until after the first few dungeons. Or you learn new skills from weapons, and you don’t have any new weapons to buy in the beginning.

Thank god, some party members

Thank the gamedev, some party members

Basically, the mechanics are on rails until you escape the “learning” period of the game, and then you finally get to that fun meat. Where you are making character customization decisions left and right. Do I master this class or that class? Do I use this rare ingredient to alchemize this weapon or that weapon? Which skills should I prioritize first?

Usually, at this point, customization is at its most fun. You are consistently learning new skills/powering up your heroes, and you are actively engaged in how it happens.

Then, you reach a new point. That point where you start maxing everything out. Maybe there is new stuff to learn, but it is all redundant or not as good as what you have. Or you’ve made all the decisions and all that is left is a linear “keep grinding” bit. This is usually also the point where you are probably powerful enough to beat the game already anyway.

"Where do you even GET a +500 Sword of Ultimate Annihilation. Screw this I quit."

“Where do you even GET a +500 Sword of Ultimate Annihilation. Screw this I quit.”

This curve is seemingly endemic to RPGs. And the reason it exists is actually perfectly reasonable. In the beginning, with a new player, you don’t want to overwhelm them, you want to teach the game more slowly. And near the end… well, it is hard to make a game that is endlessly customizable. And if you do, it sometimes makes your player feel like they just got started when the game ends.

So how do we fix this? To be honest, I don’t really know. It’s a hard nut to crack. Give too many options in the beginning, and new players don’t understand the context in which they are making those decisions. Perhaps you could drop them in with a bunch of decisions, but have “suggested” options?

With the ending, you can always make your game end before the customization does, but how do you fight that feeling of incompleteness? Perhaps with strong post game content?

It feels so common in RPGs that it feels almost unavoidable. What ideas do you have to fight this problem?

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  • hywelphillips

    As a player, I prefer the power curve to be flatter- going from being afraid of bunny rabbits to godslayer can be fun, but I think it is overdone. So give the player plenty of stuff near the start – just slow enough that I can figure it but so the choices are coming regularly even in the tutorial. And don’t make the villains so comically out-of-scale as to be single-handedly taking out dragons and demons the size of city blocks. (Again, can be fun but massively overdone). Keep the challenges to a more human scale, but make me care about them.

    In the mid-game let me shuffle a bit of stuff around and respec or downgrade as well as upgrade, so I can get to be uber-competent at my chosen thing. Or be a bit more balanced across multiple options- but only to a limited extent. A fighter-mage, maybe, with some drawbacks. But not a mage-priest-fighter-monk-thief-paladin-bard-collect-all-the-skill-points-with-enough-grind. Make it so if I really want to experience the joys of beating the game entirely with a non-fighty sneaky character, I have to do so in a replay. Give me characters to interact with and start to really love or hate.

    For the end game, make the story gripping enough that I get motivated by finding out what happens next and achieving a happy ending for the characters I want to save. Give me meaningful, heart-rending plot decisions to make. Make it a BIG challenge to get the happy ending for everyone- or always fall just a tiny a bit short. Make me make sacrifices- maybe the magic sword of ultimate power I fought so hard to claim for 95% of the game, or my love interest, or saving the world. Then I won’t miss all the stat and customisation choices. Mass effect two does that really well, from what I remember.