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?"

“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.


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

Leave a Comment