Roundtable - October 22, 2003 - Part 2

Googleshng: Moving along, our next topic is the subject of linearity. Back in the mid-nineties and before, RPGs periodically would give you a new vehicle, opening up 3 or 4 new areas to explore in the order of your choosing. Today however, the norm is to have such rigid linearity in a game that many developers forego a world map and simply string every area together in a nice little line. Thoughts?

Chris: Well I'm a plot oriented kind of guy, so when FFX did it, I had no qualms.

Heath: I did.

Chris: Yet I also enjoyed FFVI, so I guess it can be done well either way.

Googleshng: There is absolutely nothing keeping you from having a solid plot while maintaining freedom of exploration really.

Alex: I didn't even notice FFX had no world map, until I was about mid-way through the game.

Jeff: As a huge fan of Chrono Trigger/Cross, but also a huge fan of Final Fantasy X. I think sidequests and allowing deviations are good, but not so many you have to spend 90 hours getting back to the story.

Chris: But is there a fundamental need for that freedom of exploration?

Jeff: Allow freedom, but keep what you explore as part of the whole, not just an area 50 miles away that has no bearing on the plot.

Googleshng: Well, I've always felt games require a certain degree of interactivity, so yes, it is somewhat important.

Jeff: Need? No. I don't think you need it to have a great game. I just think having some areas is a great idea.

Heath: I hated FFX's linearity. The plot just sort of pulled you along, and I felt helpless; that I could do nothing to choose my own path. No matter what the situation, feeling helpless is never good.

Alex: Yeah, eventually, you become bored of the mere pilgrimage to Zanarkand. There was nothing really to let you venture off somewhere.

Googleshng: Having a massive world to explore honestly was the original selling point of RPGs. With other genres of games, you have several levels, which you proceeded through in a fixed order. Then you'd pop in, say, FF4, say "Woohoo! I got me an airship! Look at all these new places I can get to now!" Today though, it's the action games that let you explore a massive world, and RPGs keeping you in a fixed path.

Jeff: I think every game should have a Chrono Trigger element, an element where you could learn more about your characters from leaving the normal route, but it wasn't a must to do these little sub-plots.

Chris: I'm just saying that like most things it's something that can be done well or done poorly....though now that I think about it, I was a little annoyed not being able to jump back a town in FFX at some point.

Alex: The time-travelling theme was an excellent way to explorer into new areas.

Chris: The idea of a non linear plot is a little weird...has it been attempted?

Jeff: I don't think a totally free-roving plot has been done other than MMORPGs like Ragnraok Online, where there is little plot anyway.

Googleshng: Well, you see the occasional branching plot, but most games force you to see the story scenes in a fixed order if they're even going to bother. A case could be made for LoM I suppose though.

Chris: Though that didn't work out too well I don't think, but that could be due to my forgetting important plot by the time the next plot point came along.

Alex: I think LoM was mainly made non-linear.

Heath: Then again, SaGa Frontier went overboard with the non-linearity, in ways that could result in numerous Game Overs. I'll admit, it's probably quite tough to pull off a good linearity balance, RPGs have been around (and mainstream) long enough that the development teams should be prepared to take on such problems so that the linearity of a game isn't an issue.

Jeff: I was just about to mention SaGa Frontier as just that, a really bad attempt at being non-linear. It got to the point you had 7 people to play as a main gimmick and you didn't want to play any of them.

Googleshng: There used to be a universal formula for RPGs really. For the first half of the game, you're strongly pressured to go from point A to B to C, with the occasional cave you can wander off to explore, then halfway through the game, there were a bunch of optional sidequests you could do in any order, or just ignore and go win.

Alex: The Dragon Warrior games come to mind.

Googleshng: For the life of me, I can't see why this formula stopped being the standard. It works quite well, and the alternatives are to go completely non-linear, like the SaGa games, or to create a game as absolutely rigid as, say, Grandia.

Jeff: Google, that's actually a good formula, at least then you know your backstory enough to be able to go off course.

Jeff: Then there are games like Chrono Cross, which have a story revolving around a bunch of characters that you get whenever, and if you don't watch it you will lose sight of the story. The old formula is a good approach, in my opinion.

Chris: It may be a good formula except that it feels overdone to me. You can end up losing all focus at the end.

Jeff: Overdone, yes. Which is why we need to come up with something less about hopping around a story, and more about a story which has branches of expanding story, like the fayth visits in Final Fantasy X. You learn more if you do it, but it isn't a must.

Alex: Grandia has a perfect set up. I've played all three games and have been perfectly satisfied. There's just enough side quests for you to be happy with Grandia.

Googleshng: There's two. I couldn't stand Grandia. Two sidequests, which were such an astounding novelty to the game that it makes a big deal about how optional they are when you find them.

Chris: And they were difficult and just too much effort to bother with IMO.

Alex: That's true.

Alex: Grandia Xtreme had you travelling in a 200 floor dungeon after you beat the game. I haven't bothered with it yet, perhaps I will try it one day.

Chris: Yes, having subplots is a wonderful thing.

Googleshng: For what it's worth, a few games using this freedom-for-the-second-half formula include the entire Phantasy Star series, nearly all the FF games, and Skies of Arcadia, which keeps coming up tonight.

Heath: I don't know much about creating games, but it I think there should, at almost any given point in the game, be something--whatever it may be--a player can do that can make his/her trek through the game different than that of numerous other players.

Googleshng: Heath: Well put that.

Heath: Well, at least in Skies of Arcadia had those discoveries you could go look for pretty much whenever.

Chris: Does it count as linear if they make you really care about doing the side quests?

Googleshng: Case in point Chris?

Chris: FFVI's character development/collection.

Heath: They can't MAKE you care about anything, really...

Alex: They're all extras. If the rewards to completing them were good enough, I'm sure they would be much worth the effort.

Chris: The idea of leaving my "friends" behind in that game was abhorrent. So I had to get them all.

Googleshng: Well yes, FF6's World of Ruin is an excellent example of a non-linear second half. There's a lot of things left to do, which you can skip if you insist, and which you can do in whatever order you want.

Alex: Agreed.

Jeff: Such as Fable, Heath, which has the oportunity to make your hero a hero or a villain? That would certainly be interesting to introduce into popular games.

Googleshng: Any final thoughts before we move on?

Jeff: Sub-quests to learn more are good. Don't be afraid to allow people more world to explore!

Heath: Other than the fact that I agree with Jeff's last statement? No.

Alex: I appreciate a little non-linearness to an RPG, as long as it isn't entirely over-done.

Chris: Developing characters via sub quests is a great thing in my opinion.

Googleshng: I find most games boasting dramatic plot branches fail to deliver, but that's really a topic for another day.

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