Obsidian's Five Hard Lessons of RPG Design

Obsidian's J.E. Sawyer - project director on Fallout: New Vegas among other things - recently discussed the "challenges at the RPG industry has faced in adapting from its pen and paper roots" during a talk at GDC Europe, on which Gamasutra reports. It's a fairly interesting talk and one that is very likely to generate some interesting debate, so here's a rather generous snippet from the Gamasutra article:
Mechanical chaos is frustrating. RPGs often rely on random number generators, "in part because that is the only way to simulate things in a tabletop environment." However, he said, "In some cases, where you can reload, mechanical chaos is pointless." It also can be frustrating either way.

What you can perceive is the most important thing. Games "often focus on statistics, but we often can't perceive the effects in games." Small stat upgrades don't mean anything to players at all when they can't see the effect.

Conversely, he said he's "implemented broken things in games but players don't notice it," because there's no external statistic reflection.

Strategic failures are the biggest disappointing failures for players. When building a character or a party, "you're making long-term decisions," said Sawyer, "but many RPGs effectively punish you for making bad choices."

The idea of player vs. character is a false dichotomy. Developers with a traditional tabletop background expect players to be roleplaying when they play games. However, he said, "it will be the player doing the action... ultimately games are about the players trying to accomplish a goal." There is a definite question of "how much are we asking the player, and how much are we asking the character."

Good gameplay is better than whatever your ideas or whatever the player's expectations are. Simple and understandable: don't follow genre conventions simply because they exist. Beyond that, "attempting to execute something because you think it's a good idea or players insist it's a good idea doesn't always result in something good."


3.) Strategic failures feel really bad -- In an extreme example, he mentioned that The Bard's Tale, a 1980s classic, required you to have a bard in your party to progress past a certain point -- something that was not telegraphed by anything but the game's title.

More relevantly, Icewind Dale and Temple of Elemental Evil required the player to create entire parties at the adventure's outset. "The games were tuned for D&D veterans. There are tons of ways you can make strategic errors. There are tons of ways you can make bad parties. What happens is 20 to 30 hours into the game, you can't go any further."

"Yes, the player made the error but we placed a high demand on them," Sawyer said.

In Fallout 1 and 3, specializing in "big guns" was not that useful, as there were few such weapons and they didn't show up early in the game -- neither of which the player could know at the point of character creation. "In Fallout New Vegas, we got rid of the big guns skill and pushed those guns into other gun categories."

"We kept the idea, we wanted the experience, but we didn't want them to have to deal with the weird system," he said.

"I don't see a compelling reason to not" let players re-spec characters that aren't suited to the gameplay design in an RPG, he also added.