Now let’s get into some details; if someone had told me two years ago that he/she was working on a JRPG with a target game length of 4 hours, I would have told him/her that sounded impossible (or, if I was feeling particularly polite, “That’s interesting; how do you plan to make that work?”).
It took us a few months to really be able to answer that question, and we came up with the following set of principles:
1. Paraphrasing from a panel at PAX east, the root of a JRPG is the experience of teaming up with a band of rascals and going on an epic quest to save the world. Whatever else we tweak trying to build our RPG, we CANNOT mess this up.
2. Player progression needs to not depend on grinding. We don't want to waste time, so every combat segment should be narratively significant and challenging.
3. Make the side stories part of the main story. RPGs frequently allow the player to put the main narrative on hold to explore some ancillary aspect of the world. This helps the world feel deeper, but also makes a playthrough much longer. We still want to have these subplots, but want to advance the main story while pursuing them, which leads us to the next point...
4. There is no one "main story"; the villain's world-threatening plan is multi-faceted and any number of paths could lead to discovering and stopping it. This will manifest in game by providing the player repeated story choices; every choice will advance the main story, but as mentioned in point 3, it will also develop a side story of the player's choosing.
5. The setting cannot require heavy exposition. We have very limited time to tell our story, so it should be very easy for the player to understand the rules of setting, what’s at stake, and why he/she should care.
Of course, that’s a long way from a game—hardly a blueprint, really, but these principles do serve as beacons that help guide our development process. For example, say we wanted a dramatic betrayal by one of the main character’s friends. We’d ask ourselves the following:
- Does this betrayal mess up the dynamic of a JRPG adventure? (Probably not, it happens from time to time in JRPGs, but if you do it to someone too close to the main character without good setup, you’ll undermine the party camaraderie.)
- Can we pursue the main plot while developing this side story? (Absolutely, the betrayal of an ally is a great way to move the plot forward/create a crisis for the heroes.)
- Can we make a convincing betrayal arc given our time restrictions? (This is much harder, we’ll need time to establish this character as someone you can trust, or the betrayal won’t be as impactful. But if we don’t plant at least a few narrative seeds, the betrayal will feel completely unwarranted. We have precious little space to tell a story, so is it worth devoting that much energy to this subplot?)
We’ll talk a bit more about these principles in future posts, including how our wariness of exposition paradoxically led us a to a setting we’ve never seen before.