I love RPGs (role-playing games). They offer a nice balance between challenging gameplay, a universe full of deep lore to explore, and enough creativity involved in creating a build so the game doesn’t feel stale. Considering the top rated games on just about any list, RPGs are hugely popular and not going away.
I’ve played a whole lot of RPGs, and I’m likely going to play a lot more. Now, I’ll admit that this commitment is not something to look forward to with 100% relish, because it condemns me to repeat certain RPG tropes over… and over… and over… forever.
These aren’t bad tropes. They were interesting the first, oh, I dunno, five, maybe ten times I’d seen them. And then they just kept getting repeated. And repeated. And REPEATED. My purpose here is not just empty whining. If you, any of you, are game developers or work in a capacity to advise a game developer, pass the word along: Surprise us. Do something different this time!
Apparently, fishing is just the most awesome flipping thing to do in the whole wide world. I can’t even list how many games have a fishing minigame, but they extend to the franchises Elder Scrolls, Final Fantasy, Harvest Moon, Legend of Zelda, Stardew Valley, Runescape, EverQuest, World of Warcraft, and Ultima, just off the top. Even beyond RPGs proper, there’s fishing minigames in Minecraft and Terraria too. I even praised Torchlight II as a worthy Diablo successor, but at least the fishing minigame is easily avoided there.
Holy smoking mackerels, enough with the fishing already! I know, it’s an easy subgame to code, provides a break for players who want to chill for a minute, and adds a little luck element to help newbies. Substitute anything else: Trapping, gardening, darts, catching bugs with a net, minature golf, anything! Fishing is composed of: (1) no skill, (2) standing still doing nothing, and (3) having to pay attention to reel in the catch. That’s not why I play games. That’s certainly not why I’m playing RPGs.
The OP elemental mage
I mentioned way back in my guide to RPG magic-casting classes that elemental mages seem to be a popular default caster class for the majority of RPGs. Any RPG, even a tiny mobile one, which has more than three basic character classes will have an elemental mage as the default caster class. The mage gets to shoot firebolts if they’re into fire, or icebolts if they know ice too, or sometimes they get lightning magic so they get to cast – can you guess? – lightning bolt.
Now mages are damn fun to play, and I don’t want to cut any of them out of games. My beef is with the balance. Elemental mages always end up being overpowered! In nearly every game, once you get somebody who can sling fireballs, that’s the class to play to win. Warriors have to tank up front, rangers and archers have to stand back and shoot arrows with limited damage while worrying about where they’re going to get their next quiver full of ammo, but elemental mages always get to charge in and incinerate the whole dungeon in one shot. Why play anything else? Seriously, tone down the mages. Every game has two choices: (1) pick the mage, or (2) pick something else and be frustrated because if I’d picked the mage I could have won by now.
There is always a bug level
Right up there with the underground sewer level full of rats, we have the infamous bug level. The bugs involved will be one of spiders (yes, I know, technically not “bugs” but same idea), sometimes worms or maggots, or beetles, or roaches, any creepy-crawly. Diablo II, pictured, actually gives you the Maggot Lair in Act II and then turns around to send you into the Spider Forest in Act III. Torchlight II, spider den, Earthbound, the violent roach, Fallout, radroaches. Bugs, bugs, bugs, bugs, bugs.
Here again, I can see why game designers use bugs so much: They’re supposed to be the beginner-level enemy that is easy to kill, not very smart, and best of all easy to draw and render. Their AI is simple, because they’re bugs! Here’s the problem: Nobody has fun killing bugs. Nobody goes, “Oh boy, I’m a kick-ass world-saving hero, time to go into the basement and show those cockroaches who’s the boss!” Bug levels are boring, repetitive, dark, annoying, and ugly. Also, bugs never drop good loot. It never makes any sense that they’d drop anything except maybe a food crumb, but a surprising number of bugs in RPGs are lugging health potions and gold coins around. Bottom line, guys, make your little enemies something besides a bug for once.
Slimes: lazy enemy design
I’ve been soft on game designers up until this point, but I’m not forgiving of this one. Slimes are just stupid and lazy enemies! They are encountered almost nowhere in nature. Yes, I know, slime molds exist. When’s the last time you had to fight twenty slime molds on your way to work? In any case, even slime molds do not resemble these blob monsters of sentient quivering jello. D&D even has gelatinous cubes, which started the trend and gave us jellies and oozes in derivative games. Eventually every game from Terraria to Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth has to have an obligatory smile monster.
Nothing shows lazier game design than a slime! It is literally a circle, which you then milk for a dozen different enemies to palette-swap them into waves of green slimes and blue slimes and yellow slimes. Like bug enemies, they have no AI, no challenge, and drop no loot. I’m not going to recommend a substitute either. Just stop having slimes, period. If I want to fight with jello, I’ll go beat up dessert.
Everybody explain this to me, because I don’t get it: You kill a mini-boss, he drops some loot, but it’s colored funny and doesn’t reveal its attributes when you hover over it in your inventory. That’s because you must identify it first! So you have to schlep back to town and see the sage. Or you have to buy some identify scrolls and use them one at a time. Or use an identify spell you have to learn. That’s if you’re lucky! There’s far too many games where you simply are not provided a reliable means to identify items. Rogue-like RPGs are the worst at this. You end up just having to drop items because there’s only a few precious identify scrolls you get in the game.
Now explain this to me: Why is having to identify items allegedly “fun”? I worked hard to get this rare, mythic drop, but I can’t use it! Whoopie! Sometimes if I dare try to wield or wear the unidentified item, the item turns out to be cursed, so it hurts my stats and can’t be removed! Loot is supposed to be a reward, not a punishment. Even without cursed items, if you’re in an identification starvation scenario, you have to agonize over which items to identify. Guess wrong and spend the scroll on this crappy +1 ring of ice resistance, when you just know the sword you didn’t pick will turn out to be a unique item. Identify systems make grindy RPGs even grindier, and nobody has ever said “I want more unidentified items” in the history of gaming.
Honorable mention: I would like a diary, please.
I know everybody reading this is going to be on the same page (see what I did there?). We are busy people with busy lives and a lot going on. Sometimes we have to drop a game and pick it up later. Who knows why? Sometimes we have to pay attention to real-life, sometimes we got tired of that game and switched to a different one for awhile, sometimes we finished that game but come back to it a few years later for a nostalgic replay. When we come back to your game, we are going to forget where we were. We’re not going senile, it’s just that this is the year 2020, we’re bombarded by information on all sides.
Wouldn’t it be sweet if all RPGs had a diary feature? Just a journal we can jot down a few notes in. Because next week / month / year / decade, when we come back to this game, we’re going to forget if we finished the goblin dungeon or if we have to get the bidet of burning to finish the golden plunger quest or if we talked to princess Acne to activate the end of the zit plague, or whatever the crazy schemes within your game world may be. It’s discouraging when you open a save file from months ago and have no idea why you’re carrying 43 bear asses around because you forgot you were going to craft a siege catapult with them. You have to delete and start over.
Maps that show progress, or quest logs, or achievement lists, those help some. But how hard can it be to have a diary in-game? There’s a million games with a chat feature. Just have something in-game where I can pop open a page and jot down “currently on bridge troll quest; need five more barrels of ale to defeat boss.” Minecraft is one game that gets this.