Storyline is Good, But Remember Gameplay

in Tips and Tricks

RPGs have historically, especially starting in the early 90s, been known for their strong drama, deep characters, and epic storylines. A lot of us growing up with that legacy, moved to wanting to make video games in the genre, inspired by those features to create the same. Like aspiring authors, we descend on RPG Maker to create games that tell the grand stories that circulate in our heads, dreams of dragons and castles and heroes.

And that is good. There is nothing wrong with that. Very few people will find a strong storyline a detriment to a game, and those that do? Well, I’m pretty sure they weren’t in your target demographic to begin with!

"ZOMG WHY IS THERE SO MUCH WORDS ON THE SCREEN!?" "Why are you playing a Final Fantasy again?"

“ZOMG WHY IS THERE SO MUCH WORDS ON THE SCREEN!?”
“Why are you playing a Final Fantasy again?”

But never forget your medium. Video games aren’t books. Video games aren’t movies. Characters, dialogue, atmosphere, and all those other little tidbits aren’t there just to tell the story, they are also there to provide CONTEXT to the gameplay. And gameplay is what makes a video game, a video game, rather than just a poorly animated cartoon.

If you ever take the time, go to our official forums, which are a great community by the way, and read through some of the project topics. Is there anything you notice? 99% of all the discussion in opening topics are about the same thing: story, story, story. Now, I’m not saying none of these games have good gameplay! A lot of the users designing are still very good gameplay designers, but it shows the emphasis we place. The first thing everyone wants to tell us is “This is the story, this is how cool my writing is” rather than “this is how the game works, THIS IS WHAT YOU DO IN IT.”

Even I'm not immune to it. When describing Nier, one of my favorite games of the PS3/360/Wii generation, I'm much more likely to spout off about the deep storyline and amazing characters and dialogue than to describe it as an action RPG primarily focused on melee with ranged magic spells and occasional forays into completely different game genres.

Even I’m not immune to it. When describing Nier, one of my favorite games of the PS3/360/Wii generation, I’m much more likely to spout off about the deep storyline and amazing characters and dialogue than to describe it as a 3D action RPG primarily focused on melee with ranged magic spells with aspects of bullet hell games and occasional forays into completely different game genres (One entire section is literally a white text on black screen text adventure).

So what does that really tell us about the RPG Maker community as a whole? We value story over gameplay. And hey, that isn’t the end of the world in and of itself, everyone has their different reasons for liking games, but we can’t forget that story is a cog in the overall machine that is a game, or the games will get stale. So first, let’s talk a little bit about…

…What is Gameplay?

This might seem like a dumb question, but in all honesty, it isn’t as much as people think. So what is gameplay? Gameplay is MEANINGFUL INTERACTION.

So let’s look at it as two parts.

1. Is there interaction?

Can the player do things differently? How does he interact with the game. Can he equip different items to change the playstyle of his characters? Can he choose to do more than one thing at constant junctures in the game? Games are generally filled with choice: Do I attack this turn, do I heal? Do I equip my character with the weapon that does the most damage, or the one that gives the best secondary boost? Should I level a few more times, or go down to beat the boss now?

The thing the game needs to do though, is REACT to the choices, and that is where the second part also comes in:

2. Is that interaction MEANINGFUL?

Does it make a difference in the game? Is the game REACTING to your choice. If I choose to hit attack or use a skill, is there going to be a DIFFERENCE to how the game plays? If I can beat the entire game without doing anything other than the attack command, the entire combat system lacks meaning. There is nothing for me there but a delay while I mash that A button. That isn’t gameplay?

Conversely, if I get to make storyline decisions and nothing in changes to reflect that, then those decisions don’t constitute gameplay.

gameplay03

Persona 3/4 Social links: Gameplay or not?
1. They create interaction between you and the game. You are making choices, both in your reactions and who you hang out with during your limited time allotted.
2. Those choices make differences to the game, both in further story sections of the social links, AND in the bonuses you can receive when fusing personas. And in Persona 4, they can also affect your party member’s personas.
Conclusion: Yes, definitely gameplay!

A bit of Homework

So, what do I think we should do about this? Put some emphasis on the game part of Role Playing Game. As a challenge, instead of thinking of a new story for a project, think of a single mechanic. It doesn’t have to be unique, but bonus points if it is, and then try to think of a hypothetical game project to fit around it. Come back and post yours in the comments, or on our Facebook post linking this blog.

I’ll go first to show you what I mean:

Game Mechanic: Time Manipulation

OK, I want to make time manipulation an important way the player interacts with my world. What if you made a puzzle game, with tons of puzzle rooms, but part of how you solve some of them is to go in them more than once at the same time? What if the goal of the game was to activate 3 spheres, but you had to do it using the same number of “moves” while using time jumping to start the puzzle over to reach each one.

Maybe you get to the 1st sphere in 3 moves, then after you jump back you would need 4 moves to get to the 2nd one, but if you do a 2 move action that unlocks a door at a certain time, you can jump back again and cut getting the 2nd sphere down to 3 moves. And if you did it right, you would unlock a way to get to the 3rd sphere in the same number of moves as well.

The player has to think. The manipulation of time gives him choices that he has to make, and if he doesn’t make them correctly, the game doesn’t move on. Maybe even include multiple solutions, and different tools to be used, allowing the player to approach the same problem in different ways.

How good is this idea? Well, its rough, but I think it could be fun. This portion was literally written off the top of my head, just brainstorming how you could possibly use Time Manipulation as a mechanic in the game.

So why don’t you spitball up a mechanic? How can you make it fit into the game, and how can it be used? Join us in the conversation in the comments section below!

 

8 comments… add one

  • Kate November 24, 2013, 12:31 pm

    I’ve always been a fan of a social mechanic (i.e. your actions in the game affect how NPCs respond to you). Harvest Moon comes to mind as a basic example: you give people certain gifts, they like you more or less. Which characters like you and which ones hate you affect what options you have later in the game, namely who you get to marry. I’ve been toying with this idea for one of my projects, where the hero of the game has to regain her status on the throne, and has to impress followers to do so. Winning battles naturally impresses warrior type NPCs, altruistic deeds impress healers and others who like helping others, devious deeds impress rougish types, etc.. It allows for varied gameplay by giving the player a chance to approach things from a variety of angles. As a side note, I come from a background of running table-top RPGs, so a lot of my ideas come from how I would plan a game session for my friends.

    • Nick Palmer November 24, 2013, 3:05 pm

      I started doing tabletop rpgs and video games both at around the same time when I was a little kid.

      And yeah, social mechanics are neat. Have you ever played Star Ocean: Second Story. It had an absurd number of possible endings based on how you interact with different characters throughout the game.

      • Kate November 25, 2013, 2:17 am

        No, but I’ve heard of it.

  • richter_h November 26, 2013, 12:53 am

    “But never forget your medium. Video games aren’t books. Video games aren’t movies. Characters, dialogue, atmosphere, and all those other little tidbits aren’t there just to tell the story, they are also there to provide CONTEXT to the gameplay. And gameplay is what makes a video game, a video game, rather than just a poorly animated cartoon.”

    Well, these are the most interesting lines in my first impression.

    Of course, I’m agree if the RPG nowadays have a …well, mild taste of gameplay. Look back to ’90s where some notable RPGs are appeared (and of course, I’m not mentioning FF; they have innovative features in that time, but there are more interactive RPGs) such as Mario RPG: Legend of Seven Stars, Treasure Hunter G and Chrono Trigger. Immerse gameplay and well done story (for me), indeed.
    Then, compare with nowadays RPG (and of course, not all of them are like what I’ll explain), where players expect more from the stories rather than gameplay. Oh, well… Personally, I didn’t try too hard to play some of them, since I’m not good at keeping on track with the game’s storyline UNLESS it has direct relation with the game mechanics.

    I’m personally weighted the feature in the battle. That way, I can make several interactive features (mostly inspired from Mario & Luigi series, which you must press certain button to make a successful action) and spiced up with other features that aid the key feature of my game. And when I’m reading this article, I consider to add some more features outside the battle.

    About that Time Manipulation, I like your idea. Playing with the mechanics would do something to the entire gameplay (just like what you’ll find in Golden Sun series), and of course you’ll find yourself must, at least, used to the mechanics to make progress.
    Let me see… What if the Time Manipulation only works on certain rooms, and you must go through several rooms to make moves for the sphere in order to unlock certain gate which in several chamber the ability will be disabled. That will crack some players, but if they play well they would make progress.
    Or else, try with some items/gears that will react with certain sphere. Blue spheres is the regular ones, while the green or red ones can be activated while the player has certain items and/or wears certain equipments.

    Don’t forget with the traps and such, for ‘punishment’ if player failed to perform the move.

    Well, that’s my 50 cents.
    Cheers~

  • Đỗ Ngọc Nhân November 26, 2013, 4:53 am

    Yep ! Two of them is very important!
    If you have good story but your gameplay is not good, have many bug, your game will become bad!
    If you have good gameplay, but story look like a mess and not long enough! Your game will become bad!
    I think the best way is improve all of the gameplay and story! Don’t forget one of them!

    • amerk November 26, 2013, 12:52 pm

      In my opinion, the gameplay should come first. If you’re game is unplayable, broken, or boring, it doesn’t matter how well the story may or may not be written. Also, not every game needs a story. Even an rpg can survive if a story is not necessary (dungeon crawlers, for example).

      That’s not to say a story is not important, especially in a traditional rpg, and even with proper game mechanics somebody not invested in the story is still likely to give up. However, fixing a broken game (by trying to figure out scripts, switches, variables, and events) would seem a lot harder than revising a story.

      • Nick Palmer November 26, 2013, 5:18 pm

        I think either can come first, but I would rather play a game with a bad story and good gameplay over a game with good story but bad gameplay. But if it was a choice between Good Story, Great Gameplay or Great Story, Good Gameplay, I can play either. The thing is, you want to have at least decent gameplay.

        • richter_h November 26, 2013, 7:21 pm

          Agreed.
          Also, as friend of mine said, the reason to continue playing the game is the most important thing. How it can be fun even if the game has great story and great gameplay but you have no reason to play it again, or keep playing on it?

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