In today’s world, its an inarguable fact that the niche genres of gaming are no longer being accessed by the die hard fans of old. These days, the FPS fanatics are getting their hands on MOBAs and the casual clickers are delving into the world of Role-playing Games (RPGs). That latter genre is the one I’m most focused on these days, as it seems every other game that comes out today tries to incorporate RPG elements into its foundations. From AAA titles to the small indie passion project, what I find is that at some point the player is asked to manage skill points, profession levels, or, at the very least, stick to a character archetype as defined in the beginning of the game. Very rarely are one of these aspects of role-playing missing from a title, and when they are, its generally due to the fact that these aspects were purposely left out to hone in on the “action” aspect of a particular game, such as a shooter that wants to simplify its gameplay loop.
For the games that do intend on having RPG elements baked into its core, there is a single attribute, or ingredient, that’s key to making the player feel engaged with the process of playing a role: motivation. No shit, right? Most developers, and gamers, think that good mechanics and quality writing create the motivation to engage in a roleplaying game, but this is an illusion. The mechanics compliment certain functions of the game, such as combat. The writing keeps a player engaged in the story and character development. But the motivation to continue engaging with an RPG is down to the way the game forces the player’s hand.
That might sound counterintuitive for a genre that prides itself on player freedom, but, if implemented correctly, the mechanics that force a player’s gameplay will be unseen, non-obstructive, and will encourage the player to stick to the gameplay style or story they’ve crafted for themselves without making them feel like they are missing out on anything.
The Elder Scrolls, For Example
The Elder Scrolls games all have unique attributes and their own take on how to implement this kind of system. Let’s take a look at Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim as examples and see how they strategized motivating the player to roleplay.
Morrowind opted to give the player total freedom in the open world by making sure that enemies, in the vast majority of cases, were not leveled to the character. This means that a level 1 character is going to find the same exact kinds of enemies in the open world and in the majority of dungeons as a level 20 character. This is key for Morrowind because it means that a level 10 character who has teched into a melee focused build won’t mind taking some time out of their playthrough to opt for some magic training to change up their gameplay since the enemies they’ll be facing won’t get any harder due to the increased levels in some side skills.
Since the open world wasn’t the source of motivation for players to stick to their archetypes, Bethesda incorporated the motivation into the faction and house requirements. For those who haven’t played Morrowind, the game features factions and native houses that offer quests to the player, but lock themeslves off at certain requirements: one house might have speechcraft requirements, while a another faction might have strength and melee combat requirements. This means that a player who is focused on one kind of build is likely going to be guided to a relevant house or faction by the game’s NPCs. And because getting to the end of said questlines is almost always going to be in the player’s best interest, they feel motivated to stick with their build to unlock the next set of ranks and quests to progress.
In short, Morrowind opted for a sociopolitical solution to their motivational factor and made the player naturally feel inclined to keep steady and stick with their designated skill set, although it was never a requirement to follow a difficulty curve.
Oblivion, on the other hand, opted for the opposite approach. Instead of motivating the character through subtlety via house and faction requirements, Oblivion removed the quest requirements altogether and just made the enemies in the open world level with the character. So a level 10 character is going to find much stronger enemies in the open world and its associated dungeons than a level 1 character. This means that a character who is teched into melee combat isn’t going to want to step aside for some unnecessary magic training, as the extra levels in skills he or she isn’t likely to use will result in stronger enemies for no gain on the player’s part.
This design opened up the possibilities for specific character archetypes to 100% all of the game’s content without being locked out due to skill requirments in Oblivion, but resulted in a far more punishing leveling system that made use of the difficulty slider (to account for stronger enemies) far more necessary for new players.
Both of these methods have their assets and weaknesses, but both serve to “force” the player’s hand in some way. And those restrictions make the player feel far more invested in using the tools they’ve chosen for a single playthrough as apposed to all the tools possible, which is precisely what roleplaying is all about.
Since I mentioned the weaknesses in brief, a quick note about them: In Morrowind, the unleveled world is very, very forgiving to new players who might not have an optimal build, and will let them become overpowered gods no matter what. This is a strength. When it comes to veterans, however, knowledge of the systems at play mean that leveling every skill at rapid pace isn’t just a viable option, but the strongest option in every play through with no downsides. From a roleplaying perspective, this is a weakness. In Oblivion’s case, the opposite is true: newbies are very likely to have a punishing first playthrough in a leveled world that cares not if you understand how to make a viable build. This is a weakness. For veterans, though, the system is designed to make the playthroughs all individually unique and heavily motivated them to stick to their chosen skill set, thanks to the fact that the world will punish those who deviate too much. This is a strength.
Which version appeals to you more will depend on your taste and which game’s story and mechanics you prefer. That said, from a roleplaying perspective, both methods shown here are miles ahead of Skyrim’s method of motivation, which is no method at all.
You see, Skyrim opted to level its world similar to how Oblivion did, but also advertised itself as a game that allows the player to choose whatever build path they like and deviate as much as they want. A game of “total freedom”. The reality is that the leveled world meant that the total freedom was absolutely not a viable build choice like it was in Morrowind and, thanks to the fact that all of Skyrim’s crafting mskills were necessary to making a strong build viable off of expert difficulty, the player is not only forced into teching into their opted playstyle (not as advertised) but is also forced into using Alchemy, Enchanting, and Smithing to keep their power at reasonable odds with the AI. So that’s three forced skills on top of the combat skills used in a player’s build. Needless to say, this is the absolute wrong way to do an RPG.
Where Skyrim succeeds in pushing the mechanics of the medium, it fails delivering on the roleplaying elements of Oblivion and Morrowind by not motivating the player to actually roleplay in any true sense of the word. And it definitely didn’t succeed in matching Morrowind’s writing or story (though that’s a topic for another article).
For the RPG, limiting the player’s choice isn’t about locking the player off of content or skills, but imploring them to dive head first into their character. In a way, its about limiting what a player wants to do without forcing them to do it. Its a difficult balance to achieve, and while Oblivion and Morrowind managed to find two inventive ways of managing the systems, I await with eagerness at what future developers might theorize into practice for the genre’s future.