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    GameGuy: The “Role Playing” Edition

    By Mark H. Walker

    I hate taking out the garbage, mowing the grass, or painting my house. It's not so much the work I mind, but the constant reminder of my work-a-day life's responsibilities. Nevertheless, I do it because I know it's only temporary. When the kids are in bed, my basement computer beckons, and I escape the chores. Sometimes the escape is the flashing guns of Serious Sam: Second Encounter, other times the sinewy esses of Watkins Glen International race track, still others the booming tank cannon of the Operational Art of War II. But by far the best reality displacement devices are the dungeons, wasteland villages, and space ship corridors of computer role-playing games.

    Today's computer role-players have much to be thankful for: Diablo II, Baldur's Gate II, Deux Ex, Septerra Core (just kidding). There has never been a better time to take up falchion or flechette gun and romp through an alternate reality. But for how long will the romping stay good, what must CRPG designers do to ensure a strong future for the genre?

    In short, they need to make me forget to take out the trash, mow my grass, and paint my house. They need to keep and enhance that immersive edge they hold over the other genres. An obvious observation perhaps, but how best hold that edge? I feel dialogue, combat and pacing, setting, and acting are the edge-holders. Let me explain.

    First up, dialogue. Notice that I didn't say plot, story, or any other grand verbal machination. Until developers hire writers to pen their tales, I won't expect good story from a computer game. No, I'm talking dialogue, the simple interaction between characters. Too much CRPG dialogue is stilted, dead, and way too long. Case in point is anything from Squaresoft and parts of Baldur's Gate. We're here to play a game, folks, not study philosophy. Don't *remind* the players that they are reading. Trim the words, add a pinch of humor, and you'll keep a few more fans awake. Morte's passages in Planescape Torment is an excellent example of dialogue done right.

    Combat and pacing. Take a turn-based RPG, put in too many battles, and it slows to a crawl (Can you say Wizardy 8?). On the other hand, real-time combat glosses over the gamer's tactical options --and an order-while-paused feature is little more than a band aid compromise. RPGs of the future need innovative systems such as Squaresoft's Active Time Battle, Parasite Eve 2’s real-time/turn-base engine, and Septerra Core's­ time/turn-based hybrid. And while we are on pacing... it's all about peaks and valleys --bosses should be bosses, not pushovers, or any combat system losses its luster. You gettin' this down Monolith?

    Setting. Role-playing games started in dungeons, but there is no need to stay there. So far the staying has paid off; Baldur's Gate sold over a million copies, and Diablo II has amassed figures equal to Brittany Spear's income. Yet like Brittany, the dungeon's allure will soon fade. The RPGs of tomorrow will certainly include dungeon crawls, but I think the next big game lies in the realm of Science Fiction. Maybe Bioware's Star War's RPG? Or Interplay's Fallout 3? Who knows? But I know that sooner or latter gamers will tire of swinging swords and turn to flashing lasers.

    But make no mistake, Dungeon and science fiction are not the only "settings." Developers must also decide whether to develop for the multi or single player market. Which market is the wave of the future is a toss up. Massively multiplayer online RPGs aren't going away. They are damn fun, and a great way to flirt with girls (at least I think they're girls) without enduring their haughty sneers. But on the flip side of the shield, single player offers better story, and a sense of completion. Don't expect either to dominate.

    Acting. I can't tell you how many role-playing games bad voice acting has ruined. Actually I could tell you, but that would be a different column. Odium springs immediately to mind. Yet, good voice acting can suck players into the game's universe like nothing else. Once Diablo's Rogue spoke, "And where would I put that?" I couldn't stop playing (I'm better now). Bottom line, if you want to produce a high-quality game, you better belly up to the quality voice-acting bar.

    Obvious by omission to the immersive-edge list are graphics and game length. Graphics? Who cares? Diablo II is 640 X 480 (yeah, the expansion has 800 X 600, but you know what I’m saying) Vampire is resplendent in 1024 X 768, but who topped NPD’s list? Length? Well, you already read that diatribe. Baldur's Gate II supposedly tops out at 200 plus hours. Why? Are you going to sink 200 hours into it? I say it's a waste of development man (or woman) power.

    In the final analysis, CRPG is one of the strongest genres on the market. Yet that strength must be nurtured in order to grow. If CRPGs hope to maintain their strong sales, the games of the future must improve dialogue, invent new combat engines, vary setting, and employ high-quality actors. Only then will the immersion continue, and only then will I have a good excuse to blow off the garbage, lawn, and paint.

    © Mark H. Walker, LLC 2001

    Mark H. Walker is a veteran interactive entertainment journalist who has written over 40 books including his recently released Medal of Honor and Wizardry 8 strategy guides

    " "

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