Bigger, Better, More and the RPG curse.

When I went to GDC 2012, I talked with a lot of other indie game developers. (That’s what you do as a game developer at Game Developer Conference.) And part of the introduction dance is invariably: “So, what are you working on?”

What are you working on?

So, sheepishly, I’d admit that I was on a mission to “bring RPGs back” to the indie community, since so very few indie RPGs seemed to ship.

I said this sheepishly because I had assumed that RPGs like Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, and Lufia were kinda a bad joke in the indie game circles since nobody seemed to talk about them.

The actual response from around half of the multitude of developers I talked to that year was some variant of “Oh, I love RPGs!” or “my first game project was an RPG!”

Followed, invariably, by “they’re impossible to make, of course. They’re too big.”

RPGs are Too Big

I believe this idea that an RPG’s value is in it’s length comes from the 90’s-kid mentality where an NES or SNES cart cost $50-80 — more than a month’s salary for a paperboy — where you want to get the most bang for your buck.

It’s no longer like that however; Adults who were kids then are low on time… and kids now don’t care about money as much, both because games are generally cheaper, and because games are generally pirateable now.

Indies do smaller better

The instinct is that RPGs must be giant, sprawling epics. You need dozens of dungeons and sidequests and hundreds of monsters, because bigger and more is always better, right?

The few indie RPGs that have been relative a commercial successes have not been giant 20-dungeon epics. Zeboyd’s games have been small and quick paced; respectful of the players time. To The Moon was a tightly packed 4 hours of emotional catharsis, and completely lacked battles! Dragon Fantasy chose a small episodic model to release regular updates of content without overwhelming people at any one time.

If these teams can succeed with smaller, more detailed, less… why does everyone think you need bigger, better, and more?

RPGs are not too big; you just need to kill your children.

A principle lesson one must learn early on in making creative works is the concept of Killing Your Children: removing entire sections of your project that you’re in love with that aren’t actually working well.

It seems to me that the “large, sprawling epic” mindset of many RPG authors is the fat, lazy child we all love… and must sacrifice. If feeding this monster countless months of effort only results in a crushing sense of despair and the resolute belief that “RPGs are impossible to make,” perhaps that fat child isn’t pulling his weight.

You don’t need a long experience to make a fun game.

If you want to make an RPG, focus on smaller, more interesting. Fun.

I know I am.

7 thoughts on “Bigger, Better, More and the RPG curse.”

  1. A perfect example of what you are describing is the excellent Phantasmaburbia.

    It’s an awesome, ambitious game, but at the same time a lot of cruft has been taken out. Not only does that make the game more realistic for the developer but it also streamlines the game somewhat for the player.

  2. Why back in my day we manually retyped in RPGs in BASIC out of books and magazines. They weren’t big at all, (though reading all the raw strings would be spoil some of the surprises).

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more. We’re currently working at creating a number of short-stories in RPG form.

  4. Oh man, Phantasmaburbia has been on my to-play list since it came out… but I’m pretty much on a games diet until The Sully Chronicles comes out.

    …As is The Real Texas! How’s everything been since your launch, PsySal?

  5. Haha, I’m mostly nobody. I own and operate a web design firm but have been a hobby game developer for 20 years. I’ve made some games for seminars etc, but mostly I am a web-application developer these days.

    A skilled professional colleague and I are focused on a project to .. not reinvent the jrpg genre.. But, to harness the conventions created to realize very short sub hour stories that are each unique.

    Where the project will take us, I don’t know. But, I’m very happy with our engine and tools.

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