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Divergent Paths in Role Playing Games

As a gamer, I know and understand the desire to explore every inch of an RPG, to find every hidden cottage, to open every chest, smash every crate, and check every side passage just in case. If you are immersed in a story within a deep and engaging world, you do not want to miss any tidbit of information, flimsy rumor, or hidden secret. If you are excited by the tactical aspects of a game, you want to reach every level, and discover and exploit every advantage you can--just so you can destroy the opposition with that much more satisfying finesse and utter dominance.

I believe this desire is in fact a natural instinct of gamers, and one that most RPGs have catered to over the years. Such secrets, side quests, and optional distractions provided depth to a game world. This instinct often runs counter to another driving force within gamers--the desire to be able to make meaningful decisions that change the world or alter their course in a greater story.

It seems a classic problem to be caught between the two. There are games that allow the character to chose to be evil or good, and in some cases the choice feels superficial (Fable 1) where the choice affects your powers and meaningless NPC reaction, but does not alter the core story. There are games that allow the character to make choices that lead them down radically different paths throughout the game world (some of the Star Wars games)--truly branching the story. Future role playing games (the Mass Effect series) will develop this concept farther, allowing you to affect the world and its denizens in many ways, through active (directly making a choice) and passive choices (ignoring something that is happening elsewhere), brining computer gaming closer to pen and paper games, in which your ability to affect the world is paramount.

You could suggest that the answer lies in game replay. If the game is exciting and engaging enough, a player will be excited to play through the game a second time, trying the alternate courses and options until he or she has exhausted the entire world, even if it takes multiple runs.

Game play can be dry if you feel as if you are rail-roaded down a certain path. As a gamer--what is your preference? Would you rather follow a single story line and gain full access to the world in a single run, or have a real handle on changing the face of the world and your place in it, but in doing so, make certain alternative realities only accessible through replay?


  1. Quite a conundrum you've stumbled upon.

    On the one hand, the player should be able to make impactful choices during gameplay. On the other hand, given drastic enough in-game choices, developers may find themselves developing wholly separate games that just so happen to be packaged together.

    I also identify with your need to exhaust every corner of an RPG, and I think that even with divergent game trajectories, it's important that exhaustability is not lost. Something about open-ended games always leaves me feeling unsatisfied. Either by exploration or multiple plays, gamers should be able to thoroughly "beat" the game.

    I think you'll find a happy medium between the two extremes by ensuring that all the story lines intersect enough that they're cohesive but not repetitive. In a "multiple plays" approach, I think an effective UX can be crafted in a way that encourages the player to think about their next run, even before they've begun their first.

  2. Aaron,

    When you mention a UX that might be used to help a character navigate their separate "runs" are you poking at the ability for the player (that is, the real person, not the character) to take a step back from the game and see or browse a report of what has and has not been conquered? Many games accomplish this by showing you a list of question marked boxes [?] and let you know that 32 of the 57 secret or unlockable items have not be accessed. For me, as a player, I enjoy this kind of encouragement from the game (because if they are there, I want them!) and also a gentle reminder that there is a limit (I know when I have really won).

    Is that what you had in mind, or something else entirely?

  3. I would love to see a game that had what a player could investigate change as time passed in the game. If the player chose to investigate caves and encounter adventures and plot development there, he would miss out on plot development that could have happened in a city. When he returns to the city he gets information on events he may have wanted to have a hand in but was unable to do so since he was elsewhere. On another replay the player could choose to stay in the city and see how the story is modified with the new choices.

    I don't care for how some games had an attitude of "Don't worry player, we'll stay static until you get to see us and if you choose to teleport away, we'll stop pillaging the village until you get back." Most developers would have attempted to find a means of preventing player escape so the quest could be finished. I would prefer if escape actions had the proper consequences.

    The best experience I had with this situation was in Starflight from the 1980's. The box and manual only told you your goal was to explore the galaxy and make revenue selling what you found. It was only after I returned to a planet, previously full of life, now dead that I realized there was a greater plot going on. Then the main plot story hooks started appearing and I was on the real adventure. Its been 25 years since I played that game and I still remember the shock of finding out that the whole time I was gallavanting around mining ore, civilizations were dying in a mass genocide plot hatched by an unseen enemy. Now that is how you make someone remember a game storyline.

    Kelvin Zero

  4. I would personally say that it is good to have some kind of victory conditions, so that the player know when they've "beaten" the game. However, doing that without making the game too linear is difficult. Do you, for example, make a game so that you "win" when your faction defeats all others? But for complexity do you allow for stuff to go on without you, e.g. you can go off and mine ore while your faction wars with another faction? And if you do, is there a danger that you might "win" the game when all that your character has done is mine some ore and never encountered the enemy once?

    I do love it when a game takes on a life of its own and things happen without you being involved, but the player must have a significant impact on the result.

  5. Kelvin Zero and Mike,

    Thanks for your helpful comments. Both of your suggestions play toward a game concept that Trese Brothers is working on. I agree, a game with divergent paths needs win condition, the ability to "explore it all" and the ability for the story to advance without character's direct interaction.

    We have been crafting a game concept in which major parts of the story (in a region) will begin to advance themselves, independent of the character. If the characters do not take the initiative to get involved (are off mining ore, or are getting involved in another part of the story that is on the move elsewhere) then the story arc may resolve itself. In this way, the characters may need to either attempt to juggle, or simply prioritize the different story lines, to the determent of other areas or story lines.

    We find the ideas to be an interesting balance between divergent paths, "exploring it all" and winning. In the scenario, you can definitely "win," but that does not necessarily mean that you have completed every story line or won every conflict.

  6. I like this discussion.
    What I was talking about in my first comment has been more or less covered in subsequent comments, but I'll try to explain a little more.

    I was getting at a UX that would reinforce to the player throughout gameplay that they have various paths to choose from. For example, the first screen when they're choosing their character might offer some hints as to how each characters adventures would differ. After the player makes his selection, maybe the other character options become NPC, and during gameplay, each characters' stories might intersect in a collaborative or competitive manner.

    As far as in-game choices, similar tactics might be employed to hint at the consequences of the player's choices, and how the choices may have been non-divergent (trivial) and or divergent (critical) to the storyline.

    These UX or plot devices would help remind the player that each path offers a unique experience, maintaining the player's interest in replaying.

  7. Aaron,

    I would agree that make both the player (through UX cues, etc) and the character (through in-game warning) aware that they are making choices that will cause divergent paths is important. This is also pretty critical in helping a player achieve 100% coverage of the game. If I know when I diverged, I can find ways to get back there, and try the other routes.

    On my end, I find the in-game hints and cues to be most interesting and compelling. It knocks player right out of game-immersion to have a sudden out-of-game warning about divergence. I am excited as we are undertaking the design of an in-game system that is explained within the world's mythology and the storyline to help a character observe the divergences within Secrets of Steel.

    Thanks again to everyone on the thread for all the amazing and thoughtful comments.

  8. Hiya Fallen! I love to play Star Traders and first of all wanted to thank you guys for crafting and putting out a superior game in a market of "so-so" rpgs.

    After reading this thread I thought I might toss in my two cents on the subject. One thing I would love to see in a RPG game is a truly unique play-through of a game almost every time. This is something that you guys uncovered a bit of in Star Traders and I'm sure will again in Secrets of Steel. That said, I think it would come about by blending what you've already covered here but also maybe some simple random mechanics to add some amazing finds or uncover a simple story or participate in a conflict. You could maybe even throw in a few characters, like the officers in Star Traders, that show up with a story. ie: if your playing a pirate and you come across a bounty hunter, wouldn't they either try to collect on the bounty or depending on your charisma, be convinced to join for a price? Also, they might not like who you're working for and tell you so, deeming you an enemy(and thereby creating a villain for yourself?...).

    Just some thoughts I had while playing Star Traders. Of course your mileage may vary, and as always, thanks for making a great game!

  9. E - very cool ideas! I like the twist that characters are going to have varied reactions to you based upon your history, who you have worked for, and your general reputation.

    Definitely the main drive behind Secrets of Steel is to create a role playing experience and story that is different every time you play. Each run will be intrinsically different, as the world is more of a "sandbox-in-motion" type of world that has its own drives and changes that are going on around you constantly. As a group of characters, you will have a lot of challenges and may in many cases have to prioritize how you use your precious time to try to keep the sandbox from collapsing.

    Because of this, there is very likely to be an underlying (probably hidden) faction reputation system like that in Star Traders that will keep track of who does and does not like you within the world. That could definitely help us achieve an even higher level of uniqueness if different recruit-able characters decided to turn on you, or refuse to join, or join at a price, based on your history!

    Awesome suggestions, keep it coming!


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