Random Ideas to Improve Action RPG Gameplay
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.
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.
In 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.
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.