Fantasy is quite a broad genre of entertainment and literature. The amount of different fantasy-themed settings in gaming alone is mindboggling to say the least. With such huge variety, you would think developers would have plenty to choose from to avoid their chosen setting or theme coming in the way of gameplay. And if no suitable setting exists yet, you could make your own. Dragon Age is a good example of a recent, well executed, completely new fantasy setting, even if it is filled with the majority of the usual genre cliches.
But despite all the variety available, sometimes sacrifices must be made. Maybe the developer chose an IP based on it’s popularity, but the IP’s setting is difficult to make full use of in practical game design. Lord of the Rings Online and other games based on the same franchise are a great example here. So good in fact they’re worth taking a closer look at.
The whole Middle-Earth setting is probably the most valued brand in modern fantasy. After all, it is what started the genre. This legacy along with the rather protective Tolkien Estate (on a personal note, having seen the second Peter Jackson Hobbit film, not quite protective enough) and an almost equally puristic follower make for a tricky situation when it comes to implementing some mechanics into games utilizing the IP.
Lord of the Rings Online handles these problems somewhat decently in most cases, but still remains far from managing it perfectly. The game suffers from being locked in the timeline of the latter parts of the Third Age, specifically the time of the War of the Ring. The story must go forward, and the focus on this single plotline makes the gameplay very focused. Despite major changes to the plot made by the developer for the sake of gameplay, it is difficult for the player to feel as if they could really integrate themselves into the world of Middle-Earth as a regular citizen. The fact the modifications made to the plot’s details by the developer make the player, every player, a major hero and agent in the storyline does not help.
Indeed in LOTRO, some solutions the developers have come up with leave the player wondering whether they could’ve been implemented much better, or whether the devs should’ve just taken more artistic freedom with the IP and twisted it even further away from the original texts of Tolkien. For example, characters cannot die, for there would be no sensible way to resurrect them. So instead of health there’s morale. When a character’s morale runs out, they are forced to retreat from battle, or respawn in gaming terms. While morale works, it has it’s own problems. Diving must be disabled for example, because characters must not drown. This is a clear gameplay-limiting issue, stemming from the setting itself.
Another side effect the use of morale in place of health causes is that it limits is healing gameplay in the holy trinity combat system (the usage of which one could argue for or against in the game in question, but we’ll leave that debate for another time). As there is no health, there are no healing spells, which in many other settings would be granted to healers by deities, which in turn also do not exist in a fitting form on the face of Arda. The developers of LOTRO have solved this issue by making Minstrels’ music the primary source of morale. Practically speaking, the Minstrel class works like a healer in any tab targeting game before LOTRO, just that their abilities are not spells but rather pieces of music and the like that do various things, like increasing party members’ morale (health).
With immersion in mind, this is again a very half-satisfying solution. While gameplay-wise the Minstrel works, it just feels very out-of-place that every adventuring party battling their way around the world must have a musician with them, playing the lute right behind them as they go on about their business of spilling orc blood. Now, that’s not to say that priests having direct access to these rejuvenating spells would not be almost equally ridiculous if we thought about it in a more everyday sense (I’m looking at you, recent Forgotten Realms novels), but at least when a priest does call to their deity for some healing to be granted to their allies in a Forgotten Realms or Warcraft based game, it makes sense in regards to the setting.
It doesn’t have to even be the setting itself that rules out a gameplay mechanic or at least makes it seem out of place – it could be the genre of the setting itself.
EVE Online’s skill training system works pretty much as follows: you choose what you want to train, be it piloting a certain ship or using a new type of artillery, and the training will take a set amount of time. The skill will keep on training even when the player is offline or doing something completely unrelated to the skill in question, and the pace of training cannot really be sped up.
This system works well and makes near-perfect sense from the setting’s point of view – when training, what’s happening is the player’s character is either going through simulated training in a virtual environment set up in their head, or maybe data is being transferred directly into their brain. Who knows, its scifi, and it works.
The same system that works so well in the dark scifi world of EVE would not suit a medieval fantasy universe nearly as well. Which is why I personally do not quite understand why Goblinworks, the developer of the upcoming indie title Pathfinder Online, chose to add this system as a feature to their game.
Pathfinder Online, or PFO for short, borrows it’s setting from the popular Pathfinder tabletop RPG and so represents the fantasy genre in a very traditional way. It would be an understatement to say that the system in which one can gain XP points without doing anything feels awkward in a setting such as that of PFO. Granted, I am slightly oversimplifying PFO’s system here, for the player does need to engage in certain deeds related to the skill at hand to actually “level up”, but as you watch your experience points accumulate while standing in the character selection screen without doing anything, it all just feels terribly out of place. Where is that experience coming from, it makes you wonder, when the character isn’t even doing anything.
Other than for it’s awkward experience and crafting systems, the latter of which I will not get into now because the game is only in alpha and I am expecting it to change, Pathfinder Online actually manages to remain rather true to it’s setting for the most part. For example, while one could have an argument over whether throwing fireballs and other spells here and there makes magic feel cheap or not, that sort of magic exists in the Pathfinder universe and so, manages to make sense.
In the end the real reason why doing such crazy things in PFO is easy to implement from a developer’s viewpoint is because Pathfinder was designed to be a gaming platform from the get-go – much in the fashion of the previously mentioned Forgotten Realms, Warcraft and Dragon Age universes. Of course we can come back to the whole wizards are boring thing when we compare tabletop games of the same setting to their CRPG counterparts, but the reckless throwing of fireballs of the CRPGs still doesn’t quite manage to seem completely out-of-place. Not to the same extent as for example the Rune-Keeper class of LOTRO at least – the Rune-Keeper you see is a pure magic caster – something one would completely not expect to work in the Middle-Earth setting, not while staying true to the IP at least (and it doesn’t).
For what its worth, my advice to a developer trying to choose the right setting for their game would be to first make sure that it really suits the game’s needs. If it doesn’t, before you start development, make completely sure you can implement all the necessary gameplay elements without stretching the limits of the original IP too much – you probably don’t want to anger the fans of the IP – but at the same time, it would likely be best to not come up with crazy solutions like not letting your players dive either just for the sake of staying true to the setting.