Sweeping Panoramas

Yesterday I outlined some of the major building blocks of a CRPG and I mentioned for each if I had a strong preference in terms of games design. Today I’d like to create a more specific outline for my dream game.

Let me start off by saying that I’d love a game based on the 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons rules. To date, the only such games have been little applets on Facebook, which is pretty pathetic. I know that someone is developing a new Neverwinter Nights game based on 4e rules, but I have a strong impression that will be another real-time game that takes liberties with the actual game mechanics. I’m more interested in a game that faithfully recreates the pencil-and-paper game in an electronic format.

As far as overall game design is concerned, I’d like to take a step back from the industry trend in one particular way (I mean, aside from wanting turn-based rather than real-time combat). Over the last ten or twenty years what I’ve been noticing is that CRPGs have moved to having a common interface for all parts of the game. If you play the original Pool of Radiance what you’ll notice is that the game has a number of different interface styles: when moving about in towns or dungeon areas the game is presented through a first-person perspective; when travelling through the wilderness the game is presented with a top down view of the area with the party represented by an icon; when in combat, the game is presented with an isometric view with each character represented by a unique avatar. By comparison, in Oblivion there is only the first-person perspective throughout the game – the game interface literally never changes irrespective of whether you’re in combat, hanging out in town, or travelling through the wilderness.

In my opinion, this is an unnecessary conceit. First of all, in the first-person perspective you can’t see yourself, which takes away some of the joy of building a cool character and seeing him or her in action. Also, the joy of character progression is limited because you don’t get to see you character decked-out in new armor or whatever. In terms of combat, first person perspective combat is generally real-time (although there have been exceptions, such as the Might & Magic series).

So I would embrace the idea of multiple game interfaces. I would design the game to cover a very large area, such as the entirety of Faerun if the game was set in the Forgotten Realms. The game world would be built in 3D from a zoomed-out perspective, so not every last tree and house would need to be modeled, rather it would be like a 3D rendered interactive map of the continent, and the interface be a top-down isometric view of the surrounding countryside with the player’s group’s position and movement indicated with icons and lines, very much like they do in Indiana Jones when they’re showing him flying or sailing somewhere and you see the red line marching across the map. This would be called the overland screen.

When the party reaches a location that can be interacted with, such as a town or dungeon, the game would shift to a first-person perspective. But this wouldn’t be done in the sense of Dragon Age or Oblivion in that the entire area is rendered in 3D; rather it would be very much like an adventure game interface along the lines of Myst or The Longest Journey. With an adventure game-style interface, the game could reproduce the sort of interaction players have with a dungeon master: the DM introduces and describes the scene and the players have an opportunity to interact with the environment, making skill checks and investigating interesting features. In the case of a town or city, the interface would show a panoramic view of the area and specific shops or points of interest could be interacted with from that main screen – no more dragging your group across three screens to go to the blacksmith and then dragging them back across a few more screens to go to the alchemist, you just select what you want to interact with from the main screen, while being treated to some gorgeous visuals of the whole area. This interface would be called the adventure screen.

From either the overland or the adventure screens you could end up in combat. When combat begins, a third interface launches to provide a turn-based tactical combat experience. My preference would be to take inspiration from the recent King’s Bounty games. In those games, combat takes place on a hex grid, but for my game it would be a square grid in line with D&D rules. The one change I would make is that in King’s Bounty the combat screen takes place on only one dimension, whereas to accurately reflect combat in D&D you would want multiple dimensions, meaning that there could be characters flying one or more “levels” above the ground, or swimming or burrowing below the ground level. So the combat environment would be designed as a sort of cube made up of thousands of smaller cubes, each representing the 5-foot spaces a single square represents in a typically D&D map. This would be called the combat screen.

Dialogue and other such interactions could take place on any of the three screens, and done using a “talking portrait” style similar to what was used in Dark Omens. The game itself would be designed to cover the spectrum from level 1 through 30. One of the central tenets of the design would be to incorporate a number of side-treks and random encounters, so that the game wouldn’t feel like a lead-by-the-nose linear process, but rather a game where the player can follow the main storyline along, or else take a break from it to do some old-fashioned dungeon crawling or exploring. Ideally, with all of Faerun mapped out, the game could be added to with DLC so that it was always growing with more cities and towns to visit and more adventure sites to explore.

So there is my ideal game. An epic, sweeping adventure encompassing a huge area, with the problem solving and investigation aspects of an adventure game combined with the tactical combat and character progression of a pencil-and-paper RPG, but with a game design that moves away from the rather prosaic foibles of the modern first-person games.

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