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Memoirs of an Amateur Programmer

by D.A. Sklavos

I think it fair to say I'm no professional. I wish I were. But last I checked, QuickBASIC 4.5 is hardly a marketable language. Not to say it's a bad language, but it's not exactly the highest quality. I've been programming in it for a while, and I've discovered it's best suited to making a certain kind of game. A kind of game near and dear to all our hearts. A role-playing game. Console-style.

And that's basically what I do. I program console-style RPGs for the computer, because frankly, there are nowhere near enough. But as a one-man development team, I do peruse the editorials here rather often. I read the Q&A column daily. It's here that I realize what people want to see in RPGs, and focus on what I want to see through the opinions of fellow RPGamers. So I'm going to comment on a few things that I've taken the liberty of adding to my RPG, things I'd like to add, but overall...things that I, as an RPG maker, get the impression that people want to see. I'm going to focus primarily on battle engines and on sequels, with a light emphasis on graphics and storyline.

My maiden voyage, Shadow Legend, was a prototype. I get the feeling that most people like the Dragon Warrior/Final Fantasy style turn-based, menu-driven battle engine. It's been ripped off and altered so many times that it's very close to being the standard, and only the rash of PlayStation RPGs have seriously challenged it. Being so easy to program, it was my first choice, and it made it in with a few alterations. I've noticed, however, that the battle engine of an RPG can make or break the game. A lot of people can contend the importance of a story, but RPGs are supposed to do more than just tell a story - they're supposed to entertain through interactivity. When a battle engine is boring, the game becomes very dull. As a developer, I made it a point to incorporate a classic battle engine, adding my own unique touches. A lot of people point to Chrono Trigger as being a landmark RPG, and so I adopted the "fight right here, right now" style of battle.

My experience with RPGs has taught me that graphics can play a very, very large role in how much a player enjoys the game. After having played through Final Fantasy VIII (which I still contend to be a masterpiece in form and an incredibly good game), I tried to go back through Final Fantasy VII again. I didn't get past Disc 1 for one simple reason: compared to Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy VII looked absolutely horrendous. The blocky, polygonal characters were so bad that I think many players would have preferred the simple graphical style of the old Final Fantasies and Legend of Zelda. Since Zelda-style graphics are very close to the best I can program, I went with that style. Even if I could do something like Final Fantasy VIII's design, I've noticed that the cry for RPGs with an older style and flavor is pretty loud, and I tend to prefer tile-based maps, as unusual as that sounds.

I think one of the biggest debates going on right now is the complete lack of continuity amidst SquareSoft's sequels. I have to contend that I don't particularly agree with that. I do believe that sequels can have a story with continuity, and I don't feel that continuity automatically means rehashing the same tired old story. The storyline I have progressing through my RPGs (Shadow Legend and it's upcoming sequel, Shadow Legend 2) could easily expand through four or five sequels without rehashing the same tired, trite design. No resurrection of defeated villains. A pure story, run through games, as it should be. This is where I feel the Final Fantasy series fails the gaming community: the one strand of continuity it did have, in the form of the four elemental crystals, was scrapped for Final Fantasies VI through VIII. I've heard that the crystals are returning in Final Fantasy IX, and I'm glad for that.

Games in the same series should not be disparate, but should have very concrete, unifying attributes. This was the case for the NES and Super NES Final Fantasy games, but past them is where it fell apart. This is also the case in the Seiken Densetsu series, and, it appears, the Parasite Eve series. The Mega Man series of action games may have been formulaic, but when you were playing a Mega Man game, you KNEW you were playing Mega Man. It wasn't just the sprite, it was everything. All over the screen. A unifying style. That's something I really hope to portray in my series of RPGs. Games in the same series, bearing the same title throughout, need to have a lot of similarities. Those similarities are what called for the sequels to begin with.

My work is available at http://members.home.net/humanerror/index.html and I invite people to e-mail me and give me suggestions as to how I should proceed with my RPG designs. The games themselves are rather spartan but I do hope to gradually improve them. I think that by saying "every game is a learning experience," I describe the philosophy that made SquareSoft, Enix, and Working Designs such solid developers. Every game is a learning experience. Every game has room for improvement. Never forget the kind of effort put forth to make the games you enjoy, and remember they were made with your interests at heart.

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