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Editorial Swen Vincke on creating 'Skyrim-like' RPGs

Zed

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Tags: Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim; Larian Studios; Swen Vincke

Swen Vincke of Larian Studios is back with another blog entry. This time, the topic is "afterthoughts I have after a conversation with another developer on creating a Skyrim-like RPGs".

Here's a piece of it:

Said developer has been doing the rounds with a video of a very ambitious RPG that clearly wants to be a Skyrim killer. Now I’m no big fan of these enormous systemic simulations, preferring instead handcrafted dense worlds with rich backstory, but I recognize that if done well and coupled to a powerful character development system, games like Skyrim can offer players a lot of fun. The logistics of making an RPG being an active topic of interest for me, it was therefore with real interest that I queried about the size of his world because games like this are reknown for being large.

Predictably he told me that he planned on having several large areas ,with one area typically containing a few cities and several villages, linked by realistic environments. At the word ‘cities’ I cringed, not because I don’t like cities in RPGs, I do, but because of the work involved in making them fun, and also because I know what they lead to development wise.

I couldn’t help myself and immediately projected the following scenario in my mind: Game will be late, will cost much more than he’s thinking, will require many iterations of the storylines as stuff gets cut, will show scars as a result of the cutting, will probably be pretty unbalanced and all of these things together might mean the game never gets made, which would be a pity because it looks like there’s a passionate nice team working on it. That, or it’ll be extremely boring because these will be the dullest cities ever made.​

Ambitious RPG developer creating a Skyrim-killer. Who could that be?
 
Repressed Homosexual
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I completely agree with trying not to make cities, there's nothing I can't stand more than "cities" with five houses. It's better to make many small dense areas and it gives more atmosphere anyway. I think it adds a lot of character to Larian's games.
 

Angthoron

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It seems to me Larian is a good example of keeping experienced devs in-house, as opposed to Blizzard, they've already made all the mistakes they could by now.

Oh yeah, and not being struck with a star disease is great too.
 

sea

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Even a single city is a huge amount of development resources, so I think that generally RPGs should have at most one, and ideally maybe even revolve primarily around that single city to make it as big and detailed as possible. Personally, though, I can do without that kind of thing - I'd much rather see a game with an original setting devoid of cities (or even large towns etc.) that can manage to make it work by presenting an interesting and believable universe to explain it... whether that's post-apocalyptic, island chains, an underground cave system, etc.
 
In My Safe Space
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Doing all of this requires a lot of scripting and content, and you really don’t get that much gameplay minutes out of your hard development work, because players typically rush through cities, looking for the next thing to do.
:what:
 

Infinitron

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Codex Year of the Donut Serpent in the Staglands Dead State Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Torment: Tides of Numenera Wasteland 2 Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 A Beautifully Desolate Campaign Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Pathfinder: Kingmaker Pathfinder: Wrath I'm very into cock and ball torture I helped put crap in Monomyth
Doing all of this requires a lot of scripting and content, and you really don’t get that much gameplay minutes out of your hard development work, because players typically rush through cities, looking for the next thing to do.
:what:

Welcome to the age of WoW, where players' eyes permanently focus on the air directly above NPCs' heads, as they zip from exclamation mark to exclamation mark.
 

Angthoron

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Doing all of this requires a lot of scripting and content, and you really don’t get that much gameplay minutes out of your hard development work, because players typically rush through cities, looking for the next thing to do.
:what:

Welcome to the age of WoW, where players' eyes permanently focus on the air directly above NPCs' heads, as they zip from exclamation mark to exclamation mark.
Sadly all too true.

I still enjoy towns personally, at least the well-done ones, but for an open-world TES-like being built from ground up by a small team, yeah, not the best idea. Maybe they should make something more akin to M&M 6-8 type towns?
 

Baron

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220px-SunDogCity.gif

Sundog: The Frozen Legacy
The building configuration changed from planet to planet, but yeah, it was largely cosmetic. The amount of coloured buildings gave you a feel for a size of a place, it was simple but effective. As you wandered from building to building you could be ambushed by muggers in the alleys, and it would display a larger combat map, then your circle fought the other circles in a lasery firefight. Good times. If I'm not fearing being bushwhacked then I'm just walking, not much fun. You could enter about a third of the buildings in Sundog, although from memory they were generic repeats of certain kinds (ie. pink Weapon shops, blue Bars, etc) so you usually just headed for the closest of that kind. The lesson I took from Sundog was that random encounters in cities are just as important as they are in the wilderness / deep space.


Autoduel_1.png

Autoduel
No runner-up in a Miss City pageant, but again, who cares, it's fast, funtional and each city was different... a bit. Autoduel was a game about equipping your car with flamethrowers and mines, and salvaging spare parts from the destroyed wrecks of your enemies. Cities are where you spend credits, played some blackjack or purchased a clone. Autoduel realised that shopping should be functional, as wandering through shops is not a fun game mechanic or particularly immersive (ie. Arena / Skyrim), it just chews up time. The ONLY benefit to show inside a shop is if you play a Thief.


395286-space-rogue-dos-screenshot-a-bedroom-s.png

Space Rogue
You play a Thief.
And as luck would have it there was always a safe lying about waiting to be cracked. Space Rogue didn't have cities, but did have unique space stations. Talking to NPCs was much of the Ultima level of depth, although plenty of NPCs had something to say or a quest. Importantly though, they felt like real places... the droids, the shady characters, the alien video game in the bar.


Moonstone-AHardDaysKnight_7.png

Moonstone.
Not really relevant here.
Very violent though. The streets of a good city should resemble the above.


BloodNet_2.png

Blood Net
Several games created detailed cities by having beautiful little slice-of-life areas within which to have a clandestine meet or enjoy a lively stabbing. As much as I enjoy a GTA or Elder Scrolls sandbox to explore, too much of it is unnecessary filler (unless I play a thief). For RPGs I love small, intimate little areas in which to meet an NPC and fire my shotgun into him.


I don't see anything wrong with having cities in a game, but combining with Skyrim-like gameplay is usually a gameplay fail. The added immersion just doesn't provide an equivalent level of fun. Why not stick to villages or BloodNet-style pockets? The players of a RPG will expect the gameplay to reward them with complex dialogue from the NPC encounters, not to hear someone saw another mudcrab. For Grand Theft Auto-like games the gameplay doesn't come from talking but from hitting city-dwellers in the head with a bat. Hilarious fun, mind you, which is why a whole city of bashing heads works so well. So if you must build a city in a sandbox game, don't fill it with guards intent on arresting for minor hooliganism or boring you with three different lines. Have a setting like Syndicate, or Moonstone, or The Witcher, or Sundog... where unwashed strangers can interupt your midday stroll with blood letting. Complex dialogue and quests just works better in smaller areas.
 

Metro

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Welcome to the age of WoW, where players' eyes permanently focus on the air directly above NPCs' heads, as they zip from exclamation mark to exclamation mark.

Didn't Div 2 quest givers have those things over their heads, too?
 

Turjan

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I agree, fewer towns is probably better. That will make sure they may actually be fleshed out and be fun. It's also good when, if your game lore states Big City is a multi-million inhabitant metropolis, you don't represent it by five shacks. In an open world setting, it's better to adjust the lore, or you will have to make separate closed areas for city districts.
 

thesoup

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Welcome to the age of WoW, where players' eyes permanently focus on the air directly above NPCs' heads, as they zip from exclamation mark to exclamation mark.

Didn't Div 2 quest givers have those things over their heads, too?
Not sure if I remember. They had some sort of little pyramid above them when you were close enough to indicate you can initiate a conversation, but I'm pretty sure they didn't have a WoW style exclamation mark. I might be wrong.
 

Roguey

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Yeah, they definitely had the exclamation marks.

Doing all of this requires a lot of scripting and content, and you really don’t get that much gameplay minutes out of your hard development work, because players typically rush through cities, looking for the next thing to do.
:what:

Welcome to the age of WoW, where players' eyes permanently focus on the air directly above NPCs' heads, as they zip from exclamation mark to exclamation mark.
I always did this anyway even before that feature existed.
 
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So they want to kill Skyrim.

:hmmm:

Last time I checked, when ambitious RPG developer wanted to "kill" a shitty title with a better title, it ended with SW:TOR:troll:
 
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Doing all of this requires a lot of scripting and content, and you really don’t get that much gameplay minutes out of your hard development work, because players typically rush through cities, looking for the next thing to do.
:what:

Welcome to the age of WoW, where players' eyes permanently focus on the air directly above NPCs' heads, as they zip from exclamation mark to exclamation mark.

To be fair, most cities in games are kinda boring, it's usually a bunch of NPCs walking in circles telling you what to do, + restocking on supplies. We already suffer that in real life. While I like to take my time*, I understand most people wanting to get done with it so they can go out and find quests, fight enemies and exploring the world. Of course I'm not defending the "words are scary" guys who literally "rush" throught cities, talking to the one person who looks important, but those are probably not the majority so I don't think he was talking about them.


*at the stores, in particular *girlsquee*
 

Major_Blackhart

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Never played Morrowind.
However, Tarant was full of life, from the evening alley muggers to the Boil to the university and hall of records, there was always something going on.
 

Turjan

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Never played Morrowind.
However, Tarant was full of life, from the evening alley muggers to the Boil to the university and hall of records, there was always something going on.
Yup, Tarant was definitely the better city.
 

Carrion

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One of my biggest gripes with Skyrim (and Morrowind and, to a lesser extent, Daggerfall) is that the cities were underused. In a game that has NPC schedules, it would be a great idea to have, say, an assassination quest take place in some building in the middle of a city instead of some random, linear cave somewhere. It'd instantly give you tons of more options to consider: the time of day (easier to be undetected during nighttime), the location of the target (sleeping at night in a tightly guarded house vs. out in the open in the streets during the day) and how to get there (sneaking in through the back door, jumping on rooftops to reach a balcony, bribing a guard, slaughtering everyone and walking through the front door, setting up traps etc.), the movement of guards and civilians, possible escape routes from the city when the deed is done etc. It wouldn't even have been a huge amount of extra work since those mechanics and locations are already in the game. Too bad that there are only a handful of such quests, which makes the cities little more than places where you buy and sell stuff. Instead, every quest takes place in a dungeon somewhere.

On the other hand Arcanum did a better job with Tarant and a couple of other towns, even though there was some wasted potential there as well because of all the screwing around in the sewers and other standard dungeon crawling. The cities were still clearly the most interesting part of the game.

I'd love to see an open-world RPG with a bigger focus on cities instead of the devs just trying to cram as many locations and square miles in your game as they can. I guess one of the main flaws of open-world games is that you're forced to see a bit too much of that world a bit too often. New Vegas actually was pretty good in this regard, but aside from Vegas most settlements only had one of two quests. Same thing with FO and FO2.
 

Roguey

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Tarant in Arcanum was a good city.
I hated the bottlenecks that made traveling the thing such a chore.
 

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