How We Get Around Our RPGs

There are lots of ways that gaming has changed over the last 20 years. Both in perception and appeal, but also in their fundamental design. The types of games we see now are not the same types of games we saw back in the early/mid 90s. I want to talk about one of these design decision changes that I’ve noticed, and I know a lot of people have brought up at one point or another.

With the release of Final Fantasy 13-2, we saw some major shifts away from designs that were implemented in its predecessor. Tons, Shops, non-linear dungeons, and so forth. These are basically summed up, in my opinion, as “things that make the game world feel more like a complete world, rather than a strictly scripted series of events”.

Linearity is something that’s much more common now than it used to be. Especially in the RPG genre that FF13-2 is a part of. Older RPGs were much more open ended and players received a lot less direction about where to go and what they should be doing. This is sort of exemplified best with the presence of, and since, departure from the “World Map”.

Something like this.

World Maps were once the preferred way to have a player traverse the game world, going from town to town, or dungeon to dungeon. It was an effort to convey the connection between all the different locations your traveled to. Town A was north of Dungeon B, because you actually had to travel North to get there. It was also an easy way to give players a lot of freedom in where they went.

In the mid 2000’s, RPGs saw use of a different type of game map. One where instead of being able to freely roam, the player would select target locations, and simply appear there. It surely saved a lot of time in the development cycle, in that they no longer needed to render and design a traversable landscape, but it also saved time for the players.

All the places you care about, and none of the boring places you don't.

Another method that was later implemented was simply having the entire game be done like dungeons or towns. The land that connected one dungeon to another, or one town to another, was simply a big dungeon of its own. A field in the form of one big, sunny room, or a canyon in the form of a twisting corridor. (Like FF-X or White Knight Chronicles)

Lightning running through a seriously big room.

Both of those changes seem to be basing themselves off the same presumed facts: “Walking from one town to another on a World Map is boring.” The destination nodes simply eliminate the trek, and the more up-close version strives to make the trek itself more engaging.

This isn’t to say that the Bird’s-Eye-View World Map doesn’t have its advantages. It provides a sense of continuity, and clearly portrays the relationship between the different locations in the game much better than the other two styles. Players can explore hidden areas of the map like the up-close “over the shoulder” style, but also get a feel for how close other locations are to one another, and in what direction, much like they see on a map displaying Travel Nodes.

Hidden locations are one of the greatest strengths of the traditional World Map.

This doesn’t always fit with all RPGs though. Older RPGs were all about that immersion, and giving players feelings of freedom. With more strictly guided RPGs, designers have shown to be interested in keeping players always in the action. Think of it like the difference between a travel montage in a movie, and following characters as they fight their way through a cave full of monsters.

Pictured: In the action.

One is about the world (the Bird’s Eye View approach) and the other is about the people (the Over The Shoulder approach). You understand that the group is moving, you see them fight through one corridor, past one battalion of enemies, and end up on the other side. The over-the-shoulder view gives you a sense of motion? It makes it feel like the characters are moving, but always forward. Which is sometimes all that matters.

And I actually kind of love the thought process behind the Travel Node method. It’s so blunt about its intentions. It’s very clearly saying: “Traveling is boring. We want to get the player in to the climactic bits, the fights and the dialog, and skip everything else”. Which it does. Travel Nodes result in a very fast paced RPG. You’re going from one important plot point, to another, constantly, throughout the entire game.

Yellow Lines: Way more efficient mode of transportation than walking.

In the end, I think all these different approaches fill their separate niches all very well, and I would hesitate to say one is objectively better, or worse, than another. As for _why_ we don’t really see any “Bird’s Eye View” World Maps anymore, I think that has more to do with the current generation of gamers, and what they’re most interested in. Look no further to X-COM being remade as a First Person Shooter, where it used to be an awesome strategy game. I think immersion and exploration has fallen out of favor, replaced by more “constant action” type games.

Phases pass, but while we’ve got everyone focused on making hyper action-focused games, I’m excited to see how that approach can be refined (for instance, never reusing old areas unless the plot absolutely demands it, something that I think is pretty objectively terrible).

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