Heretic Kingdoms: Reluctant Hero - Designer Diary
Reluctant Hero is the working title of a new game from Slovakian developer 3D People and the independent game design group, International Hobo. The idea? To make a completely different kind of role-playing game, one that still appeals to fans of the genre but which goes about things in a very different way. How do you achieve such a lofty goal? Chris Bateman, Lead Game Designer on the project and Managing Director of International Hobo, explains the thought processes behind the game.
Imagining a New Kind of Role-Playing Game
Why do we see so little variety in computer role-playing games? It’s not that there aren’t a wide range of different approaches that could be followed; after all, table top RPGs used to have far greater diversity in their focus and game mechanics than we currently see in their videogame versions. The trouble is, games have become very expensive to make, and that makes the people who invest in game development very reluctant to try new things. Why gamble on a new idea when you know you can make a lot of money doing the same old thing but slightly shinier?
At the top end of computer RPG (cRPG) production, currently exemplified by companies such as Bethesda and Bioware, the cost of development has reached such a point that a wider, more mainstream audience is necessary to justify the project budget. In itself this is no bad thing, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to experimentation on the mechanical level. If there are any cRPG fans left who are interested in original and new approaches to the genre, they may have to look to the indie market to find it.
That puts the few indie game designers working on cRPGs under a certain amount of pressure to prove that there are indeed new approaches that can be tried. And it puts indie cRPG developers in the awkward position of hoping that any original game they make will find an audience who want to play.
One Life to Live
The concept for Reluctant Hero has been kicking around the International Hobo offices for a while now. Why not make a cRPG about one person’s entire life? Why not give the player choices as to how they will live, and then let them go about living that life in whichever way they choose? At first glance, this sounds a bit like Fable, but although the two games may set off with similar goals, the games that result will be very distinct indeed. Our intention is to create a game which plays very differently to the typical cRPG, a game with less of a linear narrative and more freedom of choice.
Here is the story concept for Reluctant Hero:
Your father was one of the great heroes of the Heretic Kingdoms, his name known across the land. On his death bed, he calls you and your sister to his side... he says that he regrets having wasted his life in battle and adventure, and wishes he had spent more time at home with his wife and his children. He begs you not to make the same mistake as him; asks you to get married and raise a family and not to pursue the quest that haunted him in his later years.
Will you heed your father's wishes, settle down and raise a family, work a job, become a pillar of the community? Or will you take up your father's sword and try to complete the quest he could never complete, earning your own place in legend?
You have one life to live - how will you choose to live it?
This concept sets out certain goals that the game design then has to find ways to fulfil. How can we make a game on an indie budget that can allow the player to lead a life of war and battle, or alternatively to forsake combat entirely and live the peaceful life of a conscientious villager? What different activities will be available to the player, and how will these be presented? Or to put it another way, how will the game work?
Game designers have to be careful with originality. If a game is too inventive and different it can be very difficult for new players to get to grips with the play of the game. Besides, it’s a seldom discussed point that the toughest part of a lot of game development comes in the final stages – adjusting and tweaking the game to get it just right. The more crazy original hijinks going on, the harder that can be. It becomes important for a game designer to know that they aren’t re-inventing the wheel just for the sake of it.
What are the strengths of the classic cRPG? It’s worth noting that almost all successful cRPGs are built on experience and level mechanics (even though this fell somewhat out of favour in tabletop RPG design some time ago). One reason for this is that it is much easier to balance a videogame built on some kind of level system than one based around just open skill systems and so forth.
However, there is another key advantage to an experience system. If the player can go everywhere in the game world with impunity, there is no challenge to the exploration. Earning levels in order to become strong enough to see further and deeper into the game world can be a compelling drive to keep playing.
Experience systems promise the player: “continue to play me, and you will continue to progress”. This drive for progress is one of many factors that can make a game addictively fun, and in the classic cRPG, continuing to play means earning more experience, gaining more levels, and ultimately the capacity to progress further and see new things.
But there is a downside: if the play of the game becomes too repetitive and unvarying, the player is more likely to become acutely aware of the treadmill the experience system represents, and to feel resentful at being ‘forced to level up’.
A Matter of Time
Since Reluctant Hero is about having a life to live, time is at the centre of the game design. Instead of having a system of ‘experience points’, the player has a variety of skill paths for which they earn time.
For instance, at the start of the game the player might have allocated 3 months of experience into the Merchant skill path. This will earn them certain abilities relating to trading and so forth. The more time the player spends acting like a Merchant, the more time will accumulate in their Merchant skill path, and the more abilities they will acquire.
This system abandons the entirely abstract notion of “experience points” in favour of an arrangement where the player’s capabilities are measured in something ‘real’ – the amount of time they have spent studying, practicing and using their skills.
For the combat skill paths, the player will earn time for using their weapons (swinging their sword, shooting their bow) – perhaps 1 minute for each – with additional bonuses for defeating a foe. This need not mean killing them, though – an opponent driven to flee is still defeated, after all.
However, there is a problem. Even assuming that the game takes place with a slight temporal gradient – let’s presume we are using the near-standard 60:1 time ratio, such that 24 minutes of gameplay is 1 day in the game world. If the player starts at age 18 and dies at, say, age 70, that would still take the player more than 300 days of continuous play to live the whole life! That’s just too long by any stretch of the imagination.
To counter this, the game must skip forward in time periodically. Otherwise, we’ll never be able to play a whole life. Making these ‘time advances’ palatable to the player is tricky, however – the player must still feel in control of the play. Fortunately, there is a solution.
At the start of a game of Reluctant Hero, the player will decide how many Chapters they want to play. For instance, players might choose to play a 5 Chapter game – a short game which could be completed in half a dozen hours. Or, players might choose a standard 20 Chapter game, which would probably take about 40 hours of play for a new player. Or they might choose an extra long 30 Chapter game. It’s entirely up to the player to decide.
A ‘Chapter’ in this sense doesn’t refer to the narrative of the game, which is more procedural in nature than most videogames, but rather an episode in the protagonist’s life. At the end of each Chapter, time will advance by a few years (proportional to the number of Chapters in the current game) – displayed on screen as an appropriate message, such as “Three years later…”
At the start of a Chapter, the game design creates certain events in the game world, some of which apply to the player. For instance, suppose they own a merchant trading house which operates on the south road. For the current chapter, the game might determine that a group of brigands has begun raiding the southern road – at great cost to the player’s trading house.
This event then becomes something of a quest that the player must complete. They might go and kill the brigands themselves, or they might go and try to parlay with the brigands. If the player owns a thieves guild, they might even try and recruit them! Or alternatively, they can visit one of the heroes in their country and pay them to deal with the problem. Or they could sell their trading house to someone else and let them deal with it!
However this ‘quest’ is resolved, the Chapter cannot end until some resolution has been reached (and individual Chapters may consist of more than one such event, of course, as well as a number of ‘optional’ events that the player will only find if they travel and explore).
When the main events of the Chapter are concluded, the player has the choice to ‘End Chapter’ at any of the locations key to their life – their home, their sister’s house, their trading house, their thieves’ guild etc. Wherever they choose to end the Chapter will affect the experience they are awarded at the Chapter end.
For instance, suppose they end their Chapter at their thieves’ guild, and the next Chapter begins three years later. This might mean they are credited, say, 18 months to their Rogue skill path, plus additional experience bonuses to other skill paths. It is even possible to make it such that the way the experience is allocated depends upon how the player has developed their character. For instance, a character who has established themselves as a warrior may always earn a proportion of the Chapter end time as experience in their combat skill paths.
This system is nothing like the way cRPGs have worked in the past, but it keeps the central advantages – there is a progress structure, each player can develop their character how they like, and the player will benefit for continuing to play. But unlike the XP treadmill, the player is more or less in control of how the game progresses.
In the Balance
At the moment, we don’t even know if Reluctant Hero is going ahead. 3D People have taken a tech demo and some documentation to Game Connection in Leipzig where they will be attempting to interest publishers in the game. Although there is a certain optimism that this idea is too good to pass up, publishers are fickle beasts, and there are no guarantees.
If we get the green light, there is still a lot of game design to be done. The many different skill paths must be created, and populated with appropriate abilities. We will need a combat system (although we already have an idea for something quite different we might use!) and we will need an event system to drive forward the dynamic content of the game.
At the end of all this is the hope that there is an audience of role-playing game fans out there willing to try something a little different. I believe they exist. We just have to hope we can reach them.
Our thanks to International Hobo and 3D People for undertaking this article for us - we'll be watching the outcome with interest.
Only a Game (Chris Bateman's blog, which often touches on general game design)