I've spent over a decade working in the games industry, from software engineering to production to business development and management, and I'd like to share my experience with you today, especially to give you an idea about what all goes on when you’re working as an RPG game designer, especially in an “indie setting”. I’ll do this by taking the example of one of the games that I was involved in making. Also, I’ll be writing from a non-technical standpoint to make it easier for those of you who are considering taking up game design/development as a career. Finally, for NDA and such concerns, I will not use the real name of the game. I’ll call it GridAxe, instead :)
But before I do all that, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge that I've always been lucky to work in this game development industry where I've been able to become a part of awesome teams that have really helped me grow, both professionally and personally. So this article is a shout-out to all members of each team I’ve worked with. Because, frankly, developing these games, even the aspects of it, is not a one man job and every contribution needs inputs and ideas from everyone.
So...A few years ago, I spent time as a member of a team that had just been hired by a company in NYC. We were given a portfolio of Role Playing Games, some of which were similar to games that I had previously worked on. The idea was to come up with something which has the elements of all these games but at the same time, is different and unique in its own.
The team had two more developers besides me. Rest of the team, in their different roles, was made up of mostly former writers and players, which was the dominant demographic at the company, and for that reason I thought this will be a great experience, which it actually turned out to be!
We were given full control of this project and were told to take it from scratch (minus the initial study of the portfolio of roleplaying games). For the first few days, our main task was just to get started, and a lot of times that was just enough to get everyone to set aside their normal routine, pick up pen an paper and figure out what was best to do next.
In fact, the RPG community had already created a variety of compelling variants, so we soon got to work and came up with the idea of our very first "casual" MMORPG – GridAxe – before realizing that we would need to add some variation to our genre.
When we set up the idea of the dungeon crawling RPG, we started by trying to discover what kind of other genres it might fit. Because after some initial brainstorming, we had developed a unique concept but it really had to blend in with a combination of other genres to truly make an impact and be the best solution.
Given that, we decided on a role playing game that was both old-school and new-school. At the same time, it also needed to have the ability to be stylistically unique. When we started on the game, we had an idea of what we wanted it to be: Character Relationships focused around best friends, high school life, and love-struck drama…along with the usual combat and D&D routine. This meant that the player characters had to have a concrete personality, so that the game would have a direction and a few criteria for progression. Also, if the game were to not be tied to a specific region, then we needed to add side quests that would tie into the overarching plot. This really got our creative juices flowing. Also, since no one had come up with the "Relationship/D&D-related theme" before, so it was new and different and fun for everyone.
As we continued with the process of developing the game we came across a couple of scenarios that we had never thought of before. That is, when we decided that the characters could come from multiple provinces, we would have to come up with different personalities for each of them. So that was a huge amount of effort that required a whole new set of tools and thinking. Eventually, we were able to fit all the characters in from different provinces, including the NPCs.
The other thing was that we needed to make sure that the scales of the individual powers were right. Something that we really enjoyed making was adding new powers based on who you are, where you live, etc. We had a large amount of huge power gaps between the provinces so we were constantly tweaking the scales of the powers and making them scale up based on the province they lived in. It helped with making sure that you were playing a character with significant powers and stories and with relationships and whatnot that would interact with the forces of the world in different and multiple ways.
One thing that was especially nice to get was the character’s relationship to the environment, sort of like in the movie Avatar. We wanted players to have a deep and well defined idea of where they come from and how their world feels. We always wanted to make sure that there was a history and mythology to each country and province and it was a great way to provide a base to build upon. We also had a bunch of action RPG game mechanics that were going to be interesting to wrap around, like the fantasy civilization/manifest destiny thing. There was this great idea from the modern day, that the Game starts with a few players starting the game in a specific country in a particular location on Earth. One of them gets hot and bothered by someone else's actions, and then later on you have a chance to invade their country, kill their ruler, and take their land. It was a way of imitating that battle mentality on a larger scale in a tabletop roleplaying game. The important thing about all that is that we got a nice balance between it being just a "toss this out there, see what happens" RPG experience, and at the same time being a setting that could be expanded upon, expanding the action and personal drama you get from the world.
Going back to the "narrative scope," one of the things we tried to do was to present a large open world filled with freedom. Here is a peaceful world, but like other fantasy worlds, there are pockets of violence. There are dungeons and dragons and wizards and cities and military presence everywhere. We wanted the setting to provide that kind of freedom, without getting bogged down in the trope of "dungeon crawling, become a character, solve puzzles."
So in order to have a large scale setting we needed a large scale narrative, and more so than most games, we wanted to set the stage for the narrative before we got into NPC and player character creation. We had a large role for “playwrights” to play in that process, and I loved the idea that players would be able to explore through the story as they wanted. As I looked at setting design and read the adventure, I knew that we could use the magic of some of the house rules to give the game world an even more distinct look, even more distinct stories to tell, and to give us an exciting, thrilling fictional setting that would allow us to explore stories in a new, exciting and immersive way.
Eventually, after all the hard work and time, we're pleased with how the game finally turned out, and we look forward to how players will continue to delve into the mystery and adventure that is GridAxe.
So, that's it! I hope this gave you a good enough idea about what goes on in the making of an RPG game. It isn't as easy as just getting up and starting, there is a lot of preparation and planning involved. One thing you also must’ve gathered from this is that no role is set in stone. Inspiration and ideas can strike anywhere, anytime and to anyone and then it becomes the team effort to translate that into a working game.
If you enjoyed reading this, or if you have any comments, questions or suggestions, please leave a comment below!