I know you and you know me so lets cut to the chase. I've decided that there are two factors that are of prime importance to making RPGs have any replay value whatsoever, and I am prepared to support my claims. I'm pissed, because most modern games seem to suck when it comes to these factors - and it shows. I'm drooling, almost literally, over the prospects of Star Ocean: Till the End of Time; because it is the *first* game on the Playstation 2 that I have even the slightest faith in for bringing me a GOOD RPG. I want to know why so many video games neglect these things, and you being the god that you are, and what with having your finger on the rpg gaming pulse and what not, should have some answers, dammit!
Claim the First: You Can Not Have Too Many Items
A lot of RPGs that are less fun to play are that way because they just don't have enough items to keep you going. Items offer enticements to do battle, to explore uncharted territory and to just walk around talking to people. If your entire repetoire consists of 25 items with 5 being various healers, 5 being various status alterers and the other 15 being plot items, things get pretty damn boring prtty fast.
Why should you go risk your character's life fighting that dread dragon if you know you're not going to get the armor of God? Why should you bother to fight through that insanely long dungeon where there's a boss with 2 million hit points at the end (thank you Star Ocean) unless you're going to get the sword of God?
And why fight countless battles against useless enemies if they never even have the chance to give you something other than a worthless healing item and some money, which you can use to buy yet more useless healing items?
I could go off about how useless healing items truly are in most RPGs, and how sickeningly easy they have become these days as well. But I wont.
Returning to my original point: there is vastly less impetus to *do things* when the number of items in a game is severely limited. This includes, by the way, any applicable equipment a character may gain. Having a total of 5 weapons is boring. You spend an enormous quantity of time with 4 of them, and the super powerful one you get at the end of the game? Well, you're kind of AT THE END OF THE GAME so that's not much fun to mess around with either.
What can be done about this drudgery? Several games have come up with excellent ways to deal with this.
In Final Fantasy VI, for example, enemies have normal and rare drops - unfortunately many of them are Tonics, but a goodly number of them are rare or unique items such as Dragoon Boots, Genji Gloves and so on - and if you get tired of killing them you can morph them for more items, or you can steal from them for even more items. Excellent.
In Star Ocean, we have the Weapon Customization system. All those weird metals you find in the game can be plopped together with your existing weapons to make brand new ones, most of which are not available in any other fashion. Continuing in that vein, you can even manufacture books, curatives and various statistic-affecting items as well!
In both of these cases the game's replayability is grossly expanded, as you can find different solutions to different problems with different equipment - of which there is a great abundance.
For anyone left doubting, I recommend you play Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. While its status as a "true" RPG is debated by the hardcore freaks, most of us normal human beings will admit it is at least half RPG if not mostly RPG (the other part being action). Play that game and try to get all the items. Go ahead. Try it. On time number 5 or 6 through the game, you *might* have found most of them. And you'll have played completely different. When you get the Crissaegrim you'll be in heaven; when you get the Alucard Shield and the Shield Rod you'll be on cloud 9; when you pick up the Poison Mist you'll die laughing as you slaughter things indiscriminately.
Claim the Second: Intelligent Skill Systems Rule
In addition to getting bored in game where there is simply nothing to find, it is also easier to get bored in game where the characters don't have any sort of detailed growth. Skills, especially those that are UNIQUE to a character or character *type* (think Final Fantasy Legend), are the most interesting because they present (typically) the most challenge to acquire.
Again lets take FF VI, one of the best RPGs of all time by most peoples' standards. Skills abound... Blitzes, Tools, Rages, Mimicry, you name it. Different skills are effective in different situations, again opening myriad ways to get past certain situations. Poison the tentacles in Figaro's engine room with Sabin's Bio Blaster and you're scott free; Mimic X-Box'ed Ultima for truly sick damage; slice it up with Cyan's Cleave. So many different ways to play.
And we should now examine how a skill system can stink. Final Fantasy X's skill system stinks. Every character can acquire every skill, which is all fine and good - but it is incredibly tedious to do. You need to get tons of orbs, which are of course irritatingly hard to come by and cause you to mindlessly battle with the same set of skills for what seems like an eternity. Great variety, but not well designed.
Contrast this with a skill system that also allows each character to (eventually) learn any skill: the Star Ocean 2 skill system. Way easier to use, not quite as intricate, but way more fun! Pick pockets! Learn to mix alchemical ingredients! Cooking, writing and running - while you improve your skills your character also gets naturally better in battle. Get that wizard to learn some crazy intellectual skills for maximum magical damage potential. Lots of fun, and plenty of skills to spread the points around on. And the skills can actually affect game play, in that you can call a ride, steal some items and so on.
My final analysis: Skill systems and item variety are two of the most important gameplay factors in an RPG. Without them, even a very pretty Playstation 2 video game gets really boring, really fast. They enhance replayability greatly, and in the end are probably more important than any other aspect of the game itself, including music, controls and difficulty - after all, they provide a significant part of that reason to go explore around that one last corner, to try to find that one last boss, to try to grab every single treasure chest you possibly can, always searching for that great item you just *know* must be hanging around because you keep finding better stuff as you go.
So, the question stands: Why don't developers put more effort into these things? Once you've got an item system in place, it should be pathetically easy to add new ones - any half-braindead object-oriented programmer can tell you that. What the hell is going on?
- Aexx (http://www.aexx.net)