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Random Ideas to Improve Action RPG Gameplay

December 22nd, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I spent a fair bit of time playing Torchlight recently, which prompted a retroactive review of the experience. In expressing my assessment, i couldn’t help but notice that the majority of my reservations were symptomatic of a larger issue – the alarmingly inhospitable expectations woven throughout the action role-playing genre’s identity.
Torchlight Alchemist vs Dragonkin and Dark Zealot

Fancy words aside, the main problem for me is the amount of braindead grinding needed to access the coolest toys in the game. Naturally we’re all going to find some snazzy piece of armor and want to complete the rest – or hear about a rare pet/hireling that we can’t resist. Should it cost fifty hours of repetitive chores to unlock these scraps?

Action RPGs tend to be engaging at the beginning because we’re constantly seeing new things and making meaningful decisions at a fast pace. Ultimately that rhythm grinds to a halt, and the amount of dead time between exciting new discoveries stretches into hours. Daring to want that last component of Griswold’s Legacy means killing a thousand recycled monsters beyond the last unfamiliar pixel you’ll ever see.

After i finished all of the story quests in Torchlight and reached lvl35 with my first character, i discovered that the fastest way to obtain unique items was by scamming the gambler NPC in town. I promptly maxed out my Barter skill, equipped as much Decrease in Vendor Prices gear as i could round up, and filled my inventory with stacks of Dogfish/Catfish. Then i sold, bought, and resold the entire stash hundreds of times, twenty clicks at a time, and used the profits to buy irregularly priced socketed unidentified items from Duros the Blade at a steep discount. Over 1/3 of them were uniques, yet it still took forever and a half to assemble Magnus’ Trove.

It was probably the least fun i’ve ever had playing a video game. And then there’s the fishing. Don’t get me started about the fishing. How can any of this fluff be considered gameplay? Don’t these arbitrarily time-consuming activites seem like they were contrived purely for the sake of boasting X number of replay hours? Personally i find it disingenuous, and i think it tarnishes an otherwise excellent game. There has to be a better way, right? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but i can offer a few suggestions.

What if completing 150% of the game’s non-repetitive play experience enabled direct access to all hidden prizes in the game? For instance, if the average player finishes the main story with all unique side quests at character level 35, then someone who reaches lvl50 is probably searching for something specific, right? Why not let them have what they want?

It wouldn’t have to be free either. You could introduce a new vendor NPC that sells literally every obtainable object in the game in searchable format, without any sadistic nonsense like randomized inventory or blind gambling. You can even make the prices exorbitantly expensive, to ensure that players still have to earn them – as long as they can work directly towards collecting a full set of armor instead of needing to rely on dumb luck.

Torchlight Destroyer vs Ember ColossusIn fact, randomizing vendor stock is an undesirable custom regardless. If i need a Draining Touch III spell for my build, i’ll exit and enter town however many times it takes to buy it from the magic vendor NPC. Randomizing her inventory doesn’t prevent me from obtaining whichever item i want. All it does is make the transaction unpleasant. Resolving this issue can’t be that difficult. Basically it boils down to one extra user interface design task.

Another feature synonymous with open-ended RPGs is dungeon layout randomization, which usually produces multiple dead ends. Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with closed paths. Map exploration would feel far more linear without the occasional wrong turn.

The boring part is walking all the way back to the fork in the road. Torchlight sporadically addresses this backtracking tedium with a sort of trap chest which spawns an undead mob to repopulate the return trail. It’s a great idea, although it doesn’t happen often enough.

What about adding an intra-level portal spell to create instant waypoints controlled by the player? Navigation efficiency would be greatly enhanced by such a tool. For example, one portal could be placed wherever the main path branches off. Upon reaching a sealed alleyway, the next portal would transport the player back to the previous one’s location.

To prevent players from exploiting portals as an escape hatch, simply give the spell a painfully slow casting period – around one or two full seconds. That should be enough to get them killed for trying to activate one in the middle of battle. (If the dual-portal concept seems too similar to Valve’s Portal, the same functionality can be implemented through teleport beacons or destination markings to summon transport creatures.)

Speaking of teleportation, RPGs typically prevent players from phasing across barriers or chasms – which is perfectly understandable. Level designers may want to preview later parts of the dungeon or hint at secret locations without allowing direct access.

The question is, why can’t players teleport through those obstacles in the opposite direction? Couldn’t the game check the automap to see if they’ve cleared a path between the two locations? If so, allow them to teleport across. If not, then restrain the teleport to force them to traverse the intended path at least once.

Last but not least, please fix your combat! If my mouse is clearly hovering over an immobile opponent, with his lifebar displayed on screen to indicate target lock, my arrows should not be missing him from two meters away. Sadly, this happens all the time in Torchlight. Moreover, if my magic spells instantly dissolve into thin air whenever i’m standing on a staircase or near a wall, then the game’s projectile collision system needs work.

If necessary, hire a talented combat designer alongside a veteran gameplay programmer with experience working on fighting games; but make sure the most basic interactions in the game are intuitive and responsive. Combat design is too essential to the core gameplay experience of an action RPG not to make it a priority.
Torchlight Vanquisher and Brink vs Tu'Tara Warcutter and Tu'Tara Edgebreaker

Including a proper training mode couldn’t hurt either. It’s been a great addition to fighting game development, and even action franchises like God of War and Devil May Cry have begun experimenting with spinoffs and variations on the concept. Who wouldn’t enjoy testing out different skill tree configurations before committing to a hardcore ladder build? Should character exploration be so time-consuming?

Granted, traditional RPG producers might resist the notion of giving players immediate access to all skills and items, even in a limited practice mode environment. Obviously some online RPGs are designed to keep players hooked on acquiring incremental rewards.

Well, how about providing only as many level bonuses, skill points, stat points, and items in training mode as the player earns through standard progression? Venturing further into the main campaign would unlock more upgrades in training mode and repeal level requirements. That seems like a reasonable compromise, right? At least that way, players won’t have to grind all the way up to lvl50 nine times to explore three classes with three skill trees.

Hopefully some of these suggestions sound interesting enough for someone out there to try them. If you happen to be that person, good luck – and thanks.

Categories: Game Design, Non-Fighters Tags:
  1. December 22nd, 2011 at 21:33 | #1

    This article took a lot longer to publish than i would’ve liked, but i’m glad it’s finally done. Now i can stop writing about Torchlight on a fighting game website. For what it’s worth, i’m hoping Torchlight 2 enjoys continued success because (on average) i enjoyed playing the original.

  2. anathema728
    December 23rd, 2011 at 21:40 | #2

    If you played the game as it is when it was released, it is a very pitiful form of entertainment. Torchlight supports mods and there is even a manager for torchlight mods that will download and install, all using the mod manager. A lot of the mods would alleviate your pains.

    It is like Skyrim, I play it however I want; fast travel wherever I want and unlimited carry.

    As for having gripes about the game as it is released, unmodded, then I have no excuses for Torchlight.

    There already is something similar to your restricted training mode, many RPGs now have a respec feature, so if you explored a skill tree you didn’t like, you can reset your skills/points. It’s close enough right?

  3. December 24th, 2011 at 15:03 | #3

    The Xbox360 version had (extremely expensive) Respec Potions, so i assumed that the PC version would have them as well. It turns out they were only added as a mod.

    I’m not much of a PC gamer, so modding still seems foreign to me. The Torchlight community has certainly come up with some amazing original mods, but the fact that they were never tested by the developer makes me nervous. What if a mod corrupts my save files or alters some fundamental damage calculation without my knowledge?

    Plus i think it’s a bit of a copout releasing an unpolished game with the excuse that some modder will eventually fix it for free.

  4. Pokey86
    December 27th, 2011 at 14:55 | #4

    Nice article, though i disagree on some points, but i guess that’s down to how i play games.

    This is all imo, so if i sound like i’m disregarding personal preference… It’s because i’m relaying mine :P i don’t mean offense, blah blah blah, usual don’t-wanna-hurt-anyones-feelings-disclaimer.

    RPG’s have there own hardcore fanbase & it more often than not doesn’t relate to refinement of skill…In fact in RPG’s the strength of a player is based on nothing more knowledge & endurance. to give people a method of acquiring the “god-sword/God-armour” or whatever, without having to go throguh the tribulations that revolve around acquiring takes away from the core design of the game.

    I understand the philosophy though… how can people consider dodging 200 lightning bolts “fun”? or re-re-re-re-resetting until the random-item treasure chest contains the sword-of-destiny. or screen skipping until the vendor has the shield you want. Or even going through 100 levels of nothing but colour swap dungeons to reach the optional side boss.

    But then isn’t the measure of side-quest RPG’ing grind? I mean there is next to no “grind” in most RPG’s if you choose to follow the linear path of the storyling. Hell people grind in any of the games they choose to devote themselves to, people pactice SRK’s, jump cancelling in DMC, strafe-shooting in MW, the list goes on.

    If you remove the method of acquiring the item, or even allowing people the option of purchasing at an absorbitant price… Doesn’t it take away the appeal of acquiring it? Personally i don’t see a problem of having the Sword-of-Valour for sale at a price that is incomprehensible to acquire, but if you can get it by – say – Saving the game, selling everything you own, trying it out then reloading past save, then you remove any justification for doing the quest.

    I think grind is a natural part of the game, one of my core reasons for even playing RPG’s is that they generally ask very little in terms of reflex, timing & execution. (some minigames do of course) they’re alot more relaxing than other classes of gaming, they just simply take longer to achieve something.

    I do like the trainng mode idea however, but i feel alot of games should have some form of training mode, many often throw you in to the deep end without displaying to you the options you have available. In fact the only things i want from an RPG are these – though they’re never likely to become staples.

    – You don’t NEED a strategy guide to find the best, or any in fact, items. Clues in how to locate them should be in the game, or you should have fair odds in stumbling on them. Not 54,000/1 – but only if you have the thief gloves equippped. sadly many place them in locations you that you just could not find them in a scratch run with no help.

    – They shouldn’t end in 6 hours – hello Fable 1

    – They should have some semblance of balance, hello Fable, FFVIII, Summoner 2. Of all the game types, it seems that RGP’s are the ones that can get away with the most broken fight mechanics.

    – they should never… EVER make anything like FFX-2 again. If anyone caught me playing that i’d’ve hung myself.


    “Plus i think it’s a bit of a copout releasing an unpolished game with the excuse that some modder will eventually fix it for free.”

    In regards to this, i think with the DLC culture, have complete games or games with seemingly obvious things missing will be the new norm. Anyone who believe(d)(s) that DLC was going to be a good thing for the gamer will be sorely mistaken.

    imo anyway.

  5. December 27th, 2011 at 16:02 | #5

    All i’m saying is it doesn’t have to be that way. There are better ways to design challenges and pace item hunting requirements that don’t bank on sheer time committment way above everything else.

    And i completely disagree that the appeal of an awesome item hinges on its rarity. When it takes 10 hours of grinding to get one pair of unique boots, i don’t feel better about it. I feel worse – and dumb. Really, really dumb.

    Lastly, RPG grinding has nothing in common with the SF/DMC/MW examples you mentioned. Practicing SRKs is all about refining personal skill to improve at the game. Fishing in Torchlight is all about figuring out the pattern timing in 15 minutes, then turning off your brain for twenty hours while you collect imaginary food for an imaginary pet.

    One involves getting better as a player while the other involves upgrading your digital character without learning anything or getting any better at the game. Let’s please not confuse the two just because the word grinding can be applied to both (in different meanings).

    As for the DLC thing, i don’t mind downloadable patches. I think patching a game shows that the developer cares about the player base. But in this case, Runic didn’t include any of this stuff in their patches. Expecting players to make their own mods to fix the game’s core problems is what i have a problem with.

  6. Pokey86
    December 27th, 2011 at 21:06 | #6

    How are they not the same? Practicing AA’ing with SRK’s will be no more applicable in any other medium besides fighters, other than the fact it might improve your reaction time in a few situations. Same for strafe shooting in shooters. & if anything, grinidng in one RPG will likely give you the patience & dedication to do it better – or enjoy it more – in other RPG’s as well.

    Nevertheless that wasn’t my point, all i’m trying to say is, people spend alot of time in other games doing boring shit for the sake of improvement. Be it arbitrary fishing in about 90 differen RPG’s. (god why do they love fishing so much?) or repeatedly AA’ing a training dummy set to jump all over the place.

  7. December 27th, 2011 at 22:25 | #7

    Wait, seriously? Practicing SRK’s carries over to any fighting game with the SRK motion – which is damn near all of them. Practicing SRK’s in match situations helps you even more, by honing your anti-air reflexes. Practicing strafe shooting helps you in literally every FPS ever made.

    How does fishing for twenty hours in Torchlight help me in any other game? The only thing i learned is that i need to check for fishing before i buy another RPG. I definitely didn’t enjoy it more as time went on. On the contrary, i could not wait for that shit to be over.

    Patience and dedication? Come on, you’re reaching. Dude, you don’t have to make excuses for bad design choices. They knew they were being lazy and they did it anyway. It’s nobody’s fault but their own. Thankfully, Runic worked hard on other parts of Torchlight and built a pretty awesome game overall.

    And if you’re wondering why RPG makers keep putting fishing in their games, it’s because it’s easy to do and they keep getting away with it. Because fans keep defending that nonsense for some crazy reason.

    Anyway can’t we talk about the RPG genre’s positive aspects instead? I don’t want this discussion to be so negative, but it’s gonna stay that way as long as we keep talking about grinding. It’s pretty much indefensible as a gameplay mechanic in my opinion.

  8. Pokey86
    December 28th, 2011 at 03:15 | #8

    “i need to check for fishing before i buy another RPG”

    I got a laugh out of that, & yeah i was way grasping. But there is some truth in it, so i’ll latch on to it like a leech

    it’s funny you mention the “good points” of RPG’s… Because when i try to list them they don’t spring to mind. Irrespective, i do enjoy playing them. But i think that’s due to the fact you can play them in a very relaxed mood. Which is true of any game with an easy mode i guess, but i’m not really the type to make a game easier for my own benefit.

  9. emag
    December 28th, 2011 at 06:27 | #9

    Hi Maj,

    The randomness of the drops, fishing minigames, and the grindy behavior are exactly what draws a large portion of the RPG audience to the genre. No matter how terrible you believe those mechanics to be, there are those who are wired differently, those who see these as fantastic features to be lauded.

    Doubtless you’ve seen criticism of fighting games from non-fans who complain about having to “memorize 100 hit combos” (by which they actually mean “learn how to do an SRK”) or “mash buttons” (by which they mean “pressing buttons at the right time”). They might like seeing Ken’s dragon punch set an opponent on fire or watching Zangief protecting Russia’s skies, but the concept of learning frame data, figuring out hitboxes, and practicing inputs (or completing “trials” in SF4/SSF4) is entirely foreign and entirely un-fun to them (hell, all of those things are un-fun to me, and I’ve enjoyed playing SF for twenty years).

    Certainly I’m not equating grinding in RPGs and practicing in fighting games, but both are core elements that the majority of “fans” of the respective genres find appealing but outsiders may not care for.

    More to the point, perhaps, random-frequency rewards are well-known to be far more compelling and addictive than fixed-frequency rewards, and random-value rewards are well-known to be far more compelling and addictive than fixed-value rewards. The Lords of Vegas use this to their advantage as do video game developers.

    As for the time investment, you seem unhappy with the time you had to invest in obtaining various pieces of armor, but you did it anyway, didn’t you? You could have just quit when you completed the main storyline, but you kept on going, because these mechanics work. And perhaps you, Maj, in the end decided to say that you couldn’t recommend Torchlight to others, but many choose to recommend the game despite — or because of — these “flaws”; even your own review/retrospective indirectly encourages others to try it out. A lot of people like having padding in their games; to them, a 100-hour long game is inherently more valuable than a 5-hour long game (let alone a twenty-minute long game such as SF).

    People who like action-RPGs but don’t like the drop mechanics or the grind — or, perhaps more accurately, people who like action-RPGs but won’t buy ones with archetypal drop mechanics and grinding — are a very small niche.

  10. December 28th, 2011 at 12:25 | #10

    There are two (massive) problems with that argument. First, you’re defending the concept of grinding by comparing it against the most universally hated aspect of fighting games. Nobody likes practicing SRK’s for weeks to do them consistently. Capcom itself has been simplifying the SRK motion every generation since SF1. So even if you get me to agree with your comparison (which i don’t, as i explained above) – it still won’t accomplish anything.

    Second, Torchlight is a single-player game with no monthly subscription fees, like Diablo and D2. Making me fish for 20 hours didn’t make Runic any extra money. And unless they fix the prevalence of grinding in Torchlight 2, i have no intention of buying it. So by all financial accounts, those “compelling and addictive” mechanics failed miserably.

    Again, grinding is pretty much indefensible as a gameplay mechanic in my opinion.

    And i doubt that any fighting game player who has been following this discussion would be encouraged to buy into Torclight. (If you’re reading this and you’re about to buy Torchlight, do not buy the XBLA version. At least you can mod the PC version to fix some of this annoying crap.)

    By the way, in case it isn’t obvious, the existence of that gold-generation exploit in both the PC and XBLA versions of Torchlight is an admission of guilt. They knew they built a flawed system, so that was their way of providing a workaround. There’s no way Runic wasn’t aware of that Barter trick and they ignored it in all of their patches, so it’s clearly intentional. Why not just provide an NPC that sells all items directly instead of wasting everyone’s time with infinite gold + random gambling?

  11. LB
    December 28th, 2011 at 12:49 | #11

    i personally hate how clueless so many game companies are in terms of DESIGN.

    a game isn’t just the content – everything around it is a part of the experience. from unskippable movies/intros (which you have seen 100 times, especially right before a difficult boss fights), to worthless grinds, to retarded UI (cough tekken/mk controller config cough).

    there are so many things to complain about video games these days – partly because i’m too old to take stupid shit and take it… i’m not 8 years old anymore, and i can’t sit and watch the same god damn spongebob episode 20 times in a row… much like i can’t sit there and re-do the exact same battle 1000 times in hopes of finding that one mythic equipment to drop.

    video games are still too focused on repetition to ‘milk’ the fun, and that’s TERRIBLE.

    franchise like assassin creed completely ruined the ENTIRE SERIES for me solely based on the first game and how stupid it was doing the exact same thing over and over as required missions. i haven’t played a single Assassin’s creed since then, and i don’t plan on it.

    video game difficulty is another fun topic that would span pages, from knife-in-the-eye method of ‘difficulty’ of no save-points to controller-against-the-wall method of ‘bosses’ who kills you in one hit when all you have to do is do the exact same pattern 10000 times to slowly whittle down the boss away.

    but yeah, my least favorite of them all is definitely the time-sinks. i have too many shit to do than sit and do mindless clicks just to get something that the ONLY requirement is luck.

    probability is fun only when you are the underdog and WIN (getting that item that drops 0.01% of the time)… that means the other 9999 times you lose is that much more frustration that adds to the experience.. it’s not “YAY I FINALLY GOT IT” when you do, it’s “jesus fuck ABOUT TIME”.

    maj, want to start a consulting company with me talking to video game makers to make a more streamlined design? :)

  12. Pokey86
    December 29th, 2011 at 05:00 | #12

    If either of you manage to make an RPG that doesn’t require the need to grind you let me know ;)

    Because you’ll end up with Fable :P

  13. LB
    December 29th, 2011 at 10:07 | #13

    fable also had 0 reasons to get good equipments, so it’s missing a huge incentive there. stats didn’t seem to mean much either, so i just put on whatever made me hot and seduced everyone. :)

    i’ve only played fable 2 and despite me finishing everything, i still didn’t like the game very much simply due to certain UI features. overall though, it was a good game.

  14. December 29th, 2011 at 14:30 | #14

    Haha i’m down to help start a consulting company, but we should probably wait until i ship a game first. I just barely got into the gamedev industry a few months ago. Gotta pay my dues, level up my cred, max out some stats, find a way to add ice damage to my fireball spell … metaphorically speaking i guess?

  15. Tarnish
    December 30th, 2011 at 06:27 | #15


    Yeah, the practicing SRKs/Practice in general is so touchy. On one hand, it’s a game so making it a time investment equal to, say, things you should be focusing on in your actual life isn’t a good thing. On the other hand, I think the saying “What isn’t earned isn’t appreciated” is quite applicable in ways to simplifying things.

    Probably at the end of this tangent, but I just got done working 12 hour overnight shifts, so I don’t care, hah. Gonna get my say in laaaaate.

    I like how Dark Souls has handled grinding/rare items as of late. It seems to go out of its way to punish grinding while rewarding players with items/equipment/resources to actually get the things they want. Yet it never prevents the person grinding from getting what they want, it just tends to make it so that that’s ALL you get. You want that big bad sword? Okay, but the time you just spent you could have gotten a few other things in the process.

    Elemental/Item strengthening also helps alleviate the disparity between “rares” and things you can improve yourself in that game as well. But, really, I haven’t played a Diablo type RPG since Diablo II and I don’t really plan to in the future because of the aforementioned discussed points. I just don’t have the time :/

  16. February 17th, 2012 at 06:42 | #16


    Play Xenoblade Chronicles. Not only is it 99% grindfree, it’s probably the most frustrating-free RPG I’ve ever played. It’s not 100% frustration free, but it has built in tricks and features that make even doing common JRPG shit like scumming for rare drops from enemies relatively quick. It’s coming out in the US in April, and if you like JRPGs at *all*, it’s a must get.

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